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c. 1789

Romanticism as a literary movement lasted from 1798, with the publication of Lyrical Ballads to some time between the passage of the first Reform Bill of 1832 and the death of Wordsworth in 1850. With political revolution on the Continent and the industrial revolution underway, the period witnessed the breakdown of rigid ideas about the structure and purpose of society and the known world. During this period, emphasis shifted to the importance of the individual's experience in the world and one's subjective interpretation of that experience, rather than interpretations handed down by the church or tradition.

Romantic literature is characterized by several features. It emphasized the dream, or inner, world of the individual and visionary, fantastic, or drug-induced imagery. There was a growing suspicion of the established church and a turn toward pantheism (the belief that God is a part of the created world rather than separate from it). Romantic literature emphasized the individual self and the value of the individual's experience. The concept of "the sublime" (a thrilling emotional experience that combines awe, magnificence, and horror) was introduced. Feeling and emotion were viewed as superior to logic and analysis.

For the romantics, poetry was believed to be the highest form of literature, and novels were regarded as a lower form, often as sensationalistic and titillating, even by those most addicted to reading them. Most novels of the time were written by women and were therefore widely regarded as a threat to serious, intellectual culture. Despite this, some of the most famous British novelists wrote during this period, including Jane Austen, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and Sir Walter Scott. In addition, this period saw the flowering of some of the greatest poets in the English language: the first generation of William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Wordsworth, followed by Byron, Shelley, and Keats.


Jane Austen (1775-1817)

Jane Austen was born December 16, 1775, in Steventon, Hampshire, England, the youngest daughter of a clergyman. Her six novels were set in the provincial world in which she lived, that of the comfortable, rural middle class, and were often based on her observations of people she knew and her assessments of human nature. The novels depict young women entering society, many of whom make mistakes or become confused but ultimately find their way to a happy marriage.

Austen began writing as a teenager and initially shared her writing only with family and friends. When she eventually published, she did so anonymously. Not well known in her own time, she soon garnered a reputation for her precision, irony, and delicate touch. Her best-known works are Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), and Emma (1816). She influenced many later writers, including Charles Dickens, W. M. Thackeray, and Anthony Trollope, as well as George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell. Austen's books have endured into the twenty-first century as some of the few classics widely read for pleasure. She died from illness on July 18, 1817, in Winchester, England.

William Blake (1757-1827)

Artist and visionary poet William Blake, born November 28, 1757, in London, England, to a hosier, was apprenticed at age fifteen to the engraver JamesBasire, forwhom Blakemadedrawingsat Westminster Abbey. In 1783, Blake's Poetical Sketches were printed, and in 1789, he engraved Thel and The Songs of Innocence. The increasing turmoil caused by the French Revolution and the war between Britain and France influenced Blake to engrave America (1793) and The Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793). In the following year, he produced the combined Songs of Innocence and Experience,aswellas Europe and The First Book of Urizen.

In 1803, Blake was accused of sedition (inciting resistance or insurrection against lawful authority). He was tried in 1804 but acquitted of the charge. During this time, he finished Milton and began Jerusalem. However, for the next two decades he was increasingly despairing, poverty-stricken, and obscure. He was regarded as insane by some observers and eked out a living by illustrating a pottery catalog and selling his print collection. However, late in his life he found supporters and patrons, and in 1820 Jerusalem was finally engraved. He died August 12, 1827, in London. While he was known primarily as an artist and engraver during his lifetime, Blake came to be known as a leading romantic poet and philosopher, influencing other poets such as William Butler Yeats.

Lord Byron (1788-1824)

George Gordon Byron was born January 22, 1788, in London, England, inheriting his title of the sixth Lord Byron when he was ten years old. He grew up at the family estate near Nottingham, Newstead Abbey, and received an education at Harrow and Cambridge. His first publication, the first two cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, was based on a tour of Portugal, Spain, Greece, and Turkey he took between 1809 and 1811. The work was immediately successful, and he followed it with a series of tales featuring exotic Middle Eastern settings and hero-villains.

Byron's marriage to Anne Isabella Milbanke in 1815 lasted only fifteen months, largely due to rumors spread by Byron himself about his homosexuality and incestuous relations with his half-sister Augusta Leigh. In 1816 he left England permanently, undertaking a series of trips which inspired cantos three and four of Childe Harold (1816, 1818). Eventually, he settled in Venice, Italy, where his immersion in the Italian language and culture had a profound influence on his work, particularly Don Juan (1819-1824). While in Italy, he was the lover of Countess Teresa Guiccioli and became involved with Italian independence movements. In 1823 he went to Greece to participate in the Greek movement for independence from the Turks. He died during a violent electrical storm on April 19, 1824, in Missolonghi, Greece, after suffering from fever-induced illness for almost two weeks. His body was returned to England, but burial in Westminster Abbey was refused because of his scandalous past. He was eventually buried in his family's vaults near Newstead Abbey. In his time, Byron's work was noted for its emphasis on freedom, its overtly sexual themes, its pessimism, and its use of tormented, villainous heroes.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born October 21, 1772, in Ottery St. Mary, Devon, England, the youngest child of a clergyman and his wife. At the age of ten he entered Christ's Hospital School in London, where he read a wide variety of classical and political works. In 1791, he entered Jesus College, Cambridge, and became interested in revolutionary politics and Unitarianism. He left school without earning a degree. In 1794, he met poet Robert Southey, with whom he planned a utopian community to be built on the banks of the Susquehanna River in the United States. As part of this plan Coleridge married Southey's sister-in-law Sara Fricker.

In 1794, he published his first poetry in the Morning Chronicle. As chronicled by Daniel Robinson, Coleridge tried his hand at sonnets but failed utterly and abandoned the form. In 1795, he began giving a series of lectures to finance the utopian scheme, but when the idea was abandoned, he returned to writing poetry. From 1797 to 1798, he lived at Nether Stowey in Somerset, and completed the poems "The Ancient Mariner," "Frost at Midnight," "Fears in Solitude," and "Kubla Khan," some of his best-known works. In 1798, with William and Dorothy Wordsworth, he traveled to Germany, where he became deeply interested in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Coleridge's addiction to opium gradually overtook him and his marriage. He traveled to Malta in 1804 in an attempt to restore his mental and physical health, as well as his marriage. He returned to England in 1806, but by then his marriage had fallen apart.

By 1813, he had returned to Christian beliefs and was being treated for his opium addiction. He began working on Biographia Literaria (1817), a discussion of poetry and a critique of Wordsworth, drawing on the work of German philosophers such as Kant and Fichte. He died July 25, 1834, in Highgate, England.

John Keats (1795-1821)

John Keats was the youngest of the major romantic poets. He was born October 31, 1795, in London, England, to a lower-middle-class family. His father's accidental death in 1804, and his mother's death in 1809 after a long bout with tuberculosis, marked him with a sense of life's precariousness, a theme that recurs in his poetry. He was apprenticed to a surgeon and in 1816 was licensed as an apothecary and surgeon. This training in science helped to ground his poetry in the sensory details of nature and everyday life.

His first published poem was "O Solitude," which appeared in The Examiner in 1816, and aroused the interest of Leigh Hunt, the periodical's editor, who encouraged him to quit his medical practice and devote his life to poetry. Keats viewed this as the noblest goal one could have and was filled with a deep sense of the continuity of poetry and literature through the ages, a great love for the English language, and a desire to return poetry to its roots in Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Spenser. His first published collection entitled simply Poems 1817 (1817) was dedicated to Leigh Hunt. His second work, Endymion (1818), fell short of his own expectations, but his third collection, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes, and Other Poems (1820) contained "some of the greatest poems in the English language," according to Jean-Claude Sallé in the Handbook to English Romanticism (edited by Jean Raimond and J. R. Watson). Keats died of tuberculosis February 23, 1821, in Rome, at the age of twenty-five.

Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837)

Alexander Pushkin is Russia's most famous and beloved poet. He was born June 6, 1799, in Moscow and began writing at an early age. His first poem was published when he was fifteen years old. By the time he finished school, he was already a recognized literary figure. As a young man, he became involved in social reform and was chased into exile by the government for his political activities for nearly a decade. He married Natalya Goncharova in 1831, and they soon were given titles and joined royal society. Push-kin challenged a man who insulted his wife to a duel. He was wounded and died soon thereafter on February 10, 1837. He was only 37 years old. He came to be considered a romantic and the father of modern Russian literature.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851)

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is best known as the author of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). She was born August 30, 1797, in London, England. The daughter of two well-known authors, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary experienced early years full of instability. Her mother died ten days after her birth, and she was raised by her father and stepmother. In 1812 she met the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, a friend of her father, and in 1814 they ran off together, though Percy was already married. During Mary and Percy's subsequent travels in Europe, Mary began work on Frankenstein. Percy's wife Harriet committed suicide in 1816, and shortly afterward Percy and Mary were married. Four years after Frankenstein was published, Percy drowned. Mary died of a brain tumor on February 1, 1851, in London.

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

Percy Bysshe Shelley was the oldest child and only son of a baronet. He was born August 4, 1792, in Horsham, Sussex, England. He attended Eton, where he was mercilessly harassed because of his acute sensitivity and distaste for physical activity. He then attended University College in Oxford, but was expelled after a few months because he published a pamphlet promoting atheism. Shortly after his expulsion, he eloped with Harriet Westbrook as part of a plan to help her escape from her boarding school.

By 1914, his marriage was failing, and when Shelley met Mary Wollstonecraft through a friendship with her father, he decided to leave with her for Europe. Harriet committed suicide in 1816, and shortly after this Shelley married Godwin. By 1818 the couple, with Mary's step-sister Claire Clairmont, decided to move to Italy, and Shelley never returned to England. He and Mary wandered throughout Italy, and between 1818 and 1822 Shelley wrote some of his most important work, including Prometheus Unbound (1820) and his odes and lyrics. His work is noted for its reflections on a great variety of fields—including science, history, philosophy—and for his attempts to synthesize seemingly conflicting theories in these fields. Shelley was drowned in a storm while sailing on the bay of La Spezia July 8, 1822. His body was cremated on the beach a few days later.

William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

William Wordsworth was born April 7, 1770, in Cockermouth, Cumberland, England. His father was a law agent, and after his mother's death in 1778, he was sent away to school, where he enjoyed a great deal of freedom. His father died in 1783, leaving Wordsworth and his four siblings in the care of relatives. Throughout his life, Wordsworth remained very close to his sister Dorothy.

Wordsworth began writing poetry as a young man, but his most notable works were composed after 1803 and many of them were collected in Poems in Two Volumes (1807). These volumes include the famous "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood" and "Resolution and Independence." His long poem The Excursion was published in 1814 and was widely read. In 1835, a major collection of his poems was published, and in 1843 he became poet laureate of England.

Wordsworth's poetry is notable for his vision of the sublime, or the divine, in ordinary people and places. He believed wholeheartedly in the redeeming power of nature, and saw mystery and wonder in both people and natural things. Wordsworth died after a bout of pleurisy on April 23, 1850, in Rydal, Cumbria, England.


Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Byron published cantos one and two of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage in 1812, canto three in 1816, and canto four in 1818. The poem is based on Byron's European travels and describes exotic landscapes and people, along with contemporary military and political events, presenting them from the viewpoint of Childe Harold. Harold is a typical Byronic hero: Tormented by guilt over an unnamed sin, he is bitter, cynical, and melancholy, but also proud, and at times filled with remorse. Because of these feelings he is isolated from other people, cut off by the intensity of his feelings and by his intense suffering. He wanders in search of some release, but never finds it.

Byron's descriptions of current political events, such as the Spanish resistance to the French invaders and the battle of Waterloo, show the senselessness of war as well as the human drive for freedom from oppression. In his hero's unsatisfied wanderings through a great variety of places, he presents the idea that the only human permanence is found in writing and the lofty creations of the human mind.

Early reviewers praised the poem for its originality, despite Byron's scandalous reputation, and Byron secured lasting fame because of it. It was widely imitated and translated, and was the basis of a symphonic work by Berlioz. According to J. R. Watson in A Handbook to English Romanticism, "It is a poem about Europe, and Europe was delighted to recognize itself in this passionate, elegiac, conservative yet liberal and revolutionary masterpiece."

Eugene Onegin

Alexander Pushkin's verse novel Eugene Onegin was published serially from 1825 to 1832. It is considered a classic of Russian literature. Eugene Onegin is the story of a young socialist who moves to a family estate in the country. He makes the acquaintance one evening with a young, romantic woman named Tatiana who quickly falls in love with Onegin. Contrary to acceptable behavior, she writes him a letter professing her love, only


  • Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was first filmed by inventor Thomas Edison in 1910 and directed by J. Searle Dawley. This film has since been lost from public archives, but many more versions were made. These include the most famous adaptation, filmed in 1931 by Universal Pictures, which starred Boris Karloff as the monster.
  • Mary Shelley's Frankenstein has also spawned numerous spin-offs, including Bride of Frank-enstein (Universal, 1932), Son of Frankenstein (Universal, 1939), GhostofFrankenstein (Universal, 1942), and Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (Universal, 1943).
  • Frankenstein was made into a comedy in Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Universal, 1946) and Mel Brooks's Young Frankenstein (Twentieth Century Fox, 1974). In 1994, a more serious version, which claimed to be faithful to the book, was produced by Columbia/Tristar, titled Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
  • Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice was filmed as a television miniseries in 1995 by BBC Television and the A&E Network. It was first shown on the A&E Network beginning in January 1996 and as of 2008 was available on video and DVD. The program starred Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet and Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. It was directed by Simon Langton.
  • Alexander Pushkin's verse novel Eugene Onegin was made into a film, Onegin,in 2000. Directed by Martha Fiennes, it stars her brother Ralph Fiennes as the title character and Liv Tyler at Tatiana. As of 2008 it was available on DVD from Lions Gate.

to be rejected by Onegin. Soon thereafter, Onegin insults Tatiana's sister at a party and kills her sister's future brother-in-law in the resulting duel. Three years later, in St. Petersburg, Onegin meets Tatiana again but does not recognize her because she is now mature, refined, and married to royalty. When he realizes who she is, he tries repeatedly to win her attention even though she is married. Tatiana rejects him because she is a loyal wife, despite that fact that she still loves him.


Mary Shelley's novel, published between 1816 and 1818, is classically romantic in its emphasis on feelings over intellect and the dangers of relying exclusively on intellect; the frightening, awe-inspiring nature of the sublime; the loneliness of the sensitive hero; and the sadness inherent in the human ability to corrupt what should be naturally good. In the novel, arrogant scientist Victor Frankenstein creates a man using dead bodies, and animates him. The childlike monster wants only to be loved, but horrifies everyone who sees him.

Shelley subtitled the novel "A Modern Prometheus," linking Frankenstein to the Titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans. Prometheus was ultimately punished by Zeus for meddling in this way. Shelley makes the point that, in taking the power to create life for himself, Frankenstein is heading for a fall. He loses touch with other people and with all human feelings. By the end of the book Frankenstein is even more alienated than the monster he created. The idea of a protagonist whose ambition defiantly knows no bounds was attractive to other romantic writers, including Shelley's husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, Coleridge, and Byron.

Frankenstein shocked readers of its time, who were horrified by the idea of digging up the dead and reanimating them. Many initial reviewers attacked the book. However, the book was immediately famous with the general populace, despite its shocking nature. The first stage adaptation of it occurred in 1823, the first film was made in 1910, and adaptations continued being made through the twentieth century into the twenty-first. In Exploring Novels, George V. Griffith wrote, "Frankenstein lives well beyond its young author's modest intentions to write an entertaining gothic tale to pass some time indoors on a cold Swiss summer evening."

Pride and Prejudice

Austen's 1813 novel, which she originally published anonymously, is her second and best-known work. She wrote it for her family's amusement, but readers everywhere have enjoyed its wit, amusing dialogue, and insightful characterizations. It is a "novel of manners"; in other words, it portrays comfortable middle-class rural people and dramatizes the complex web of customs and manners holding everyone in their social places. Anyone who transgresses this code is destined for a fall. The novel, like all of Austen's books, shows a young woman learning how society and human nature operate. Throughout the book, Austen shows the results of improper behavior; some characters learn from their mistakes, while others do not. But as for a mate, each character gets the partner he or she deserves.

Although Austen was not well known during her lifetime, her books influenced later writers, including Charles Dickens, W. M. Thackeray, and Anthony Trollope, as well as George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell. In addition, she helped to raise the novel to a respected art form and paved the way for other women to write even when they did not share the extensive education that was then reserved for men. Despite her relative obscurity during her lifetime, Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice has sold more than 20million copies since its original publication and has never been out of print.

Prometheus Unbound

Percy Bysshe Shelley's long verse play Prometheus Unbound (1820) portrays the epic struggle between the Roman god Jupiter and the Titan Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans. In the four-act play, Jupiter personifies the forces of tyranny and Prometheus is a symbol of revolution and liberty, making the poem a commentary on the current political situation in England, as well as a depiction of the human struggle for freedom and truth throughout history.

According to Murray G. H. Pittock in the Reference Guide to English Literature, writer C. S. Lewis called Prometheus Unbound "the best long poem written in English in the nineteenth century." Pittock himself comments, "Prometheus Unbound is a stupendous vision of human potential," while the play also makes clear "human beings are limited by the very desires they so long to fulfill."

Songs of Innocence and of Experience

Blake wrote the earliest poems in his Songs of Innocence prior to 1784 and completed the collection by 1789. In 1793 Songs of Experience was published, and the two collections were combined in 1794. Blake subtitled the combination, "Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul," indicating that they were meant to complement each other. These beloved poems are both simple and remarkably complex. In some of the more transparent, such as "London" and "The Chimney Sweeper," Blake uses his poetic skill as a vehicle for social protest. He is indignant about the suffering among the urban poor and accuses both the Church and the monarchy for ignoring the situation.

In Songs of Innocence Blake presents childhood fears and hopes couched in the perspective of individuals who have had only a little experience. He also identifies the purity of country life with innocence and the depravity of city life with what he calls experience. Some of these poems celebrate the joyful potential of childhood, for, like Wordsworth, Blake believed children are closer to the divine than adults are.

In Songs of Experience, by contrast, Blake provides the street-wise cynical perspective that only children who have suffered in the world or been betrayed by adults can possibly know or understand. Like all of Blake's poetry, the gullibility and naiveté of innocence with the jaded cynicism of experience.

Blake illuminated each poem, the images of which in many cases offer another perspective or slant on the meaning of the poem. Some of Blake's art work and some of the illuminations that appeared with these poems can be seen at the Web site maintained by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

According to Francois Piquet in the Handbook to English Romanticism (edited by Jean Raimond and J. R. Watson), this was "the only one of Blake's books that attracted the admiration of his fellow writers during his lifetime." Piquet notes that Coleridge said of Blake, "He is a man of genius . . . certainly a mystic, emphatically."

"To Autumn"

John Keats's ode, "To Autumn," written in September 1819, was the last ode he wrote that year. According to Douglas Brooks-Davies in the Reference Guide to English Literature, "There is virtually unanimous critical acclaim for the poem's supremacy among Keats's works." "To Autumn" is simply a description of the fall season and seems to serve as a conclusion to the odes Keats wrote before it. Like his other odes, "Ode to a Nightingale," "Ode on Melancholy," and "Ode on a Grecian Urn," the poem can be seen as a commentary on grief, most likely in response to the death of Keats's beloved brother Tom in December 1818.

"To Autumn" expresses the poet's deep love of and sensual connection with nature, and his view of nature as a place of spiritual contemplation and renewal—typical of the romantics. According to Salléin Handbook to English Romanticism (edited by Jean Raimond and J. R. Watson), "With the odes, Keats invented not only a new and influential mode of symbolic poetry but also discovered the form most appropriate to his agnostic, questing genius." Klaus Hofmann, in a study of Keats's "Ode to a Grecian Urn," analyzes the transformed purpose of an ode, which must claim its aesthetic value, its purpose, and its reason for being.


Dreams and Visions

Perhaps the most notable example of the emphasis on dreams and visions in romantic literature is Coleridge's poem "Kubla Khan" (1816), which he claimed to have written during a dream while deeply asleep. While transcribing the lines from his dream, he was interrupted by a visitor, and later claimed that if this interruption had not occurred, the poem would have been much longer. The idea that a person could compose poetry while asleep was commonplace among romantics. Although critics at the time were not particularly enthusiastic about "Kubla Khan," people tended not to question whether it was possible for someone to dream such a long poem.

Coleridge was not the only person who claimed to dream the lines of his poetry. In the seventeenth century, John Milton also claimed to have received verses while sleeping, and Keats, like others, believed that poets were endowed with a special gift to translate dreams into words. In addition, Coleridge was known to use laudanum as a stimulant and for inspiration. Thomas De Quincey wrote Confessions of an Opium Eater in order to expose the addictive nature of opium and warn against its use.


Pantheism, which is the belief that there is no difference between the creator and creation, holds that God is not separate from the world, but manifested in it. This idea was popular among romantics. For example, Wordsworth writes in his poem "Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798":

    And I have felt
    A presence that disturbs me with the joy
    Of elevated thoughts, a sense sublime
    Of something far more deeply interfused,
    Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
    And the round ocean, and the living air,
    And the blue sky, and in the mind of man.

This sensation of a divine "presence" in all things marked a shift in public perceptions of nature. Until this period, most people were busy struggling to eke out a living, largely through


  • Read Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein and watch one or more of the many films that were inspired by the book. How do the book and film differ? How are they similar? In particular, how is the character of the monster portrayed in each?
  • During the romantic period, opium was cheap, available, and widely used, and people did not know its use could be harmful. Read Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822). Write an essay about de Quincey and the way this drug affected him.
  • Read some of Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience and find the accompanying artwork online or in a book. Write an essay on the poem in which you describe the art work and speculate about what interpretation of the poem can be drawn from it.
  • Read about the life of Mary Shelley or Jane Austen. Write an essay explaining how they were affected by cultural attitudes and expectations of women in their time period? How did their literary works convey their response to their milieu.

farming, and viewed nature as the resource that could be used and harvested, not as a place of renewal and purity. However, with the rise of the Industrial Revolution, cities became more crowded and dirty. To the growing urban middle class, the green countryside became more attractive as a place of recreation and an escape from the ever-increasing filth and disorder that industry brought to towns. The romantics likewise viewed nature as a place of spiritual purity and peace, where people could be redeemed by contact with the divine force immanent in the natural world.

The Self

During the romantic period, for the first time in history, people became aware that there were parts of each individual's personality beyond the access of ordinary consciousness. This idea was further developed during the twentieth century as part of modern psychological theory, but at the time of the romantics it was a novelty. The romantics were fascinated with self-exploration and with the particulars of the individual's experience in the world. Previous writers had focused on politics, business, trade, and the lives of royalty or other famous people. The lives of ordinary people had been deemed unworthy of general interest. However, the romantics were influenced by the events of the American and French revolutions and their underlying political theories, and like the revolutionaries they believed the ordinary individual had the same rights and worth as any leader. This sociopolitical theory inspired writers to consider the worth of the individual in their work and to focus more on the experiences of ordinary people.

Emotion and Feeling

In keeping with an emphasis on the individual self, the romantics valued emotion, intuition, and feeling over logic. They sought "the sublime," a state of being in which a person was simultaneously awed, frightened, and filled with a sense of majesty and wonder. A poet's response to a wild, remote, and grandiose place in nature often invoked the sublime, as did the immense night sky, gigantic geological upheavals, and rivers. They appreciated the ruins of cathedrals and ancient religious sites. Romantics also relied on their intuitive sense of things—as opposed to physical facts—to interpret the world. If a writer sensed the presence of the divine in a natural spot, for example, the reality of this presence was not questioned, but accepted as a given because the person had felt it.


Rejection of Rigid Poetic Forms

In keeping with their glorification of the unlimited freedom and potential of the individual, the romantics rejected old poetic conventions—such as the heroic couplet used by Alexander Pope—and asserted the value of the language spoken by ordinary people. They believed that the form of a verse should be shaped by the subject matter, in contrast to the neoclassicists before them, who used rigid forms and shaped their material to fit them.

Emphasis on Poetry

An interesting aspect of the romantic period was the emphasis on poetry. Most of the great romantic writers were poets instead of novelists, as novels were widely regarded as inherently inferior to poetry. Critics have offered various reasons for this prejudice. Some suggest it arose from the fact that most novelists were female, and because women were devalued during the romantic period, their work was discounted. Others note that many novels were of poor quality, giving the entire genre a bad reputation. In addition, as Bradford K. Mudge notes in his foreword in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, the poets themselves, notably Wordsworth and Coleridge, campaigned against the spread of popular fiction, claiming it would lower the tastes of the reading public and lead them away from poetry. According to Mudge, Wordsworth wrote that newspapers, novels, plays, and even some poetry, would "encourage mental lethargy" and reduce readers to "a savage, uncivilized state."


American Romanticism

In the Emerson Society Quarterly, James E. Miller Jr. writes, "America has traditionally incarnated the romantic in almost every sense," and that "The American adventure, the great democratic experiment . . . are the essence of Romanticism." Romanticism in the United States flourished between 1812 and the years of the Civil War. Like English Romanticism, its writers emphasized the dignity and freedom of the individual; rebellion against restrictions, whether political, cultural, or social; the importance of emotion over intellect; and the need for a personal relationship with God as provided by and in the natural world.

American Romanticism differed from the English movement in so far as it was shaped by factors unique to U.S. history, culture, and geography. Americans, unlike the English, lived in a more directly democratic society in which the ordinary individual had political power and was free from the dictates of a king, the aristocracy, and an established, landed upper class. In addition, rebellion and freedom of all kinds were encouraged, at least among white people, by the presence of an apparently limitless supply of land; if whites felt restricted, they would simply move farther west, where there was less social restriction and seemingly more opportunity. In small, insular England, this feeling of personal freedom and the lure of "the open road" were experienced differently. The romantic poets were great walkers. Indeed, Wordsworth' long poem, The Prelude begins with the speaker heading out of London on foot, intent on walking north toward the Lake District.

Because the United States was a new country, it did not have a separate set of literary forms, traditions, and masters. This lack of a creative structure or ceiling encouraged writers to experiment with new forms, genres, and styles. Americans felt a certain rivalry with Britain and wanted to prove that they, like the British, could create works of lasting merit that reflected the uniqueness of the American character. Thus, American romantic writers focused on American settings and themes. In addition, the vast and largely unspoiled beauty of the American landscape provided perfect material for romantic musings on nature and spirituality.

Writers considered part of the American romantic movement include Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman. According to Mark Bevir in the English Historical Review, these writers differed from their British counterparts in their "close relationship to both Unitarianism and frontier individualism."

Unitarians opposed the concept of a divine Trinity and believed that God had a single personality or manifestation. They rejected the concepts of damnation and eternal hell, the innate sinfulness of humanity, and the belief that Jesus had atoned for human sins. Bevir notes these beliefs "readily opened the way to a belief in a single spiritual deity existing within nature, rather than a transcendent God standing outside nature." He comments that although English romantics believed nature could inspire or renew people, American romantics typically believed God and nature were one and that God's purpose was achieved through the action of natural forces.

Many romantics in England and the United States looked to the past for inspiration. In England, Coleridge believed that a national church could provide stability and balance against the onward forces of social progress, and art critic John Ruskin was interested in reviving the medieval importance of trade guilds and craft skills. However, American romantics such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman were inspired by the democratic ideals of U.S. presidents Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. American romantics emphasized material simplicity, living close to nature, and the honest manual labor of the self-sufficient farmer and frontier dweller. Thoreau—perhaps the greatest proponent of the simple, self-sufficient life—lived alone in a cabin by Walden Pond, trying to simplify his lifestyle so he would be able to time away from work for contemplation, the study of nature, and his writings.

Celtic Renaissance

The Celtic Renaissance is a period of Irish literary and cultural history at the end of the nineteenth century. Followers of the movement aimed to create a romantic vision of Celtic myth and legend. The most significant works of the Celtic Renaissance typically present a dreamy, unreal world, usually in reaction to the reality of contemporary problems. William Butler Yeats's The Wanderings of Oisin is among the most significant works of the Celtic Renaissance. It is also known as the Celtic Twilight.


Platonism is the philosophy attributed to Plato, popular among the poets of the Renaissance and the Romantic period. Platonism stressed the ideal over the real, asserting that a world of ideal forms exists beyond the material world perceived by humans. Platonism is expressed to varying extent in the love poetry of the Renaissance, the fourth book of Baldassare Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier, and the poetry of William Blake, William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Friedrich Holderlin, William Butler Yeats, and Wallace Stevens.


The Pre-Raphaelites were a circle of writers and artists in mid-nineteenth-century England. Valuing the pre-Renaissance artistic qualities of religious symbolism, lavish pictorialism, and natural sensuousness, the Pre-Raphaelites cultivated a sense of mystery and melancholy that influenced later writers associated with the symbolist and decadent movements. The major members of the group include Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti, Algernon Swinburne, and Walter Pater.


  • Nineteenth Century: Women are not expected or encouraged to have professions or to make a living. There are no women diplomats, lawyers, or judges, and professions such as medicine, law, engineering, architecture, and banking refuse entry to women. A woman must marry to ensure that she will be financially supported. It is considered immoral for an unmarried woman to live alone. If a woman does not marry, she is expected to earn her keep and remain "respectable" by living with and taking care of a male sibling or her parents.

    Today: Although there are still differences in pay scale and status between men and women in many fields, women in many countries are now working in all professions and can choose to be educated in any field. In addition, a majority of women are not required to marry and can choose the type of household or family that is most suitable to them.

  • Nineteenth Century: The Industrial Revolution results in a greater variety of goods for consumers as well as in the growth of cities. It also leads to pollution, urban overcrowding, labor problems, and the exploitation of laborers, including children. The growing blight in the cities leads people to view nature in a new light and to value it for its own sake rather than simply as a resource to be exploited.

    Today: Factories are still polluting the environment, and people are still trying to find a balance between industrial growth and the preservation of natural resources. However, children in most industrialized nations are no longer permitted to work and laws require factories to provide safe workplaces. A computer/Internet revolution is occurring, leading to widespread changes in industry, communications, and consumer habits.

  • Nineteenth Century: Novels are largely regarded as "trash," not something serious, intelligent people should spend time reading. Many novelists are women. Poetry is considered the highest form of literature.

    Today: Novels are written by both men and women and are widely read. They range from light reading to serious, award-winning fiction, and some novelists make millions of dollars on their books. In contrast to the romantic age, poetry has been marginalized in popular culture, and it is difficult for poets to make a living from their works.


American and French Revolutions

The French Revolution, which drew upon some of the principles enacted in the American Revolution, resulted in the overthrow of the monarchy of France and the spread of interest in democracy, nationalism, and socialism throughout Europe. On the eve of the revolution, France was in crisis; the monarchy, which claimed to rule by divine right, had spent so much money that the country had a massive deficit. A poor harvest and bitter winter in 1788 plunged the country into famine and drastically increased prices. In addition, British textile makers were underselling their French counterparts, leading to the closure of some French manufacturers and the spread of unemployment among the workers. The increasingly restless poor found that the wealthy nobles, clergy, and upper middle class made good targets for their anger at this situation.

The revolution was not a clean victory for either the poor or democracy, as by 1799 France was a military dictatorship. However, intellectuals throughout Europe were thrilled and inspired by the notion of revolutionaries rising up and demanding their rights. Wordsworth, Blake, Coleridge, and others wrote glowingly of the revolution, and Bysshe Shelley and Byron thoroughly supported its radical principles. In general, the romantics believed in the worth, potential, and freedom of the individual, and exalted this freedom over the then-traditional acceptance of social hierarchy and political repression.

Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution was a period of social and economic change that began in the mid-1700s and lasted until the late 1800s. This change was instigated by the invention of various mechanical means of producing goods more quickly and cheaply than by hand. For example, textile mills allowed the production of vast amounts of cloth, with far less labor and cost, than if the cloth were produced by the traditional method of individual weavers working in their homes. Factory ironworks produced iron items more quickly than individual craftspeople could, and the "spinning jenny," a device for spinning thread, could make more cotton thread than many human spinners.

The Industrial Revolution was also fueled by declining mortality rates, which resulted in rapid population growth. The increasing numbers of people provided both a workforce for the factories and a market for the goods produced.

The new factories necessitated improved transportation routes for raw materials and finished goods, as well as housing and other services for the laborers. These needs caused roads and canals to be improved or constructed, and swelled the cities with cheaply built housing. The first British railway, between Stockton and Darlington, was built in 1821.

The factories hired women and children as well as men, and were often unsafe. Housing built for the workers was often substandard and unsanitary. The factories themselves polluted both air and water, belching out smoke from coal-fired furnaces and releasing dye and other wastes into rivers. The regimented hours and repetitive work in the factories were viewed as dehumanizing and numbing by the general populace.

Romantic writers were aware of these changes, which presented such a contrast between the hellish life of the city laborer and the purity and peace of nature. The industrial changes convinced many romantics the natural world was purer than the industrial one, and that nature was a place of spiritual truth, release, and renewal. In The Excursion, Wordsworth applauds the advances in science and technology that made the mills possible, but also criticizes the exploitation of women and children, the dehumanizing work shifts, and the all-encompassing greed of the factory owners.

Religious Influences

The Church of England was the official religious body during the Romantic period, but it had lost touch with much of the population. Some parishes were run by parsons who never actually visited them, while other parsons pursued their own material and physical pleasures. The growing urban population of uneducated laborers often went unserved, and in the largest cities many people were disillusioned about the church. David Jasper notes in the Handbook to English Romanticism (edited by Jean Raimond and J. R. Watson) that on Easter Day 1800, there were only six worshipers in St. Paul's Cathedral in London. Coleridge (as quoted in the Handbook to English Romanticism), whose father was a clergyman, was so skeptical that he wrote about his own son's baptism, "Shall I suffer the Toad of Priesthood to spurt out his foul juice in this Babe's face?" In general, the romantics believed the established church was stale and complacent, and they sought other avenues to express their spirituality.

The Unitarians, at the time a small sect that rejected the doctrine of the Trinity and believed that Christ was not divine, were highly educated and had a great deal of influence on the romantics. Coleridge, who was a Unitarian for some time, preached in their churches. Romantics were also influenced by the views of Immanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish mystic who promoted a pantheistic worldview particularly attractive to William Blake, who attended a Swedenborgian conference in 1787.

However, of all religious groups, the Methodists had the most impact on the romantics, who were moved by the Methodist portrayal of humans as sinners seeking redemption and the grace of God. In addition, the Methodist emphasis on emotional conversion rather than intellectual contemplation, as well as their joy at Christ's gift of salvation, fit the romantic worldview.


The writers who are now called "romantic" did not consider themselves to be part of a movement while they were writing. The term "romantic" was applied to them much later. At the time they were writing, their work received a mixed reception. Some works, like Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience were immediately praised, and others, such as Austen's novels and Blake's other work, did not receive recognition until long after their original publications.

As John R. Greenfield points out in his fore-word in the Dictionary of Literary Biography,contemporaries of the romantic poets saw them "not as a monolithic movement all agreeing upon the basic premises of Romanticism, but as belonging to various schools with different orientations concerning taste, religion, and politics." Greenfield also notes that much literary criticism was based not on the work in question but on the writer's political stance; if the critic objected to a writer's politics, he simply gave the writer a bad review. The critics divided the poets into various schools: a "radical circle" of Blake, William Godwin, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley; the "Lake Poets," including Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Robert Southey; the "Cockney School," which included Keats and Leigh Hunt; and the "Satanic School" of Percy Shelley and Byron. The latter group received its name because of Byron's scandalous reputation and Shelley's atheism and radical beliefs, which shocked readers of the time.

In the early twentieth century, Romanticism was strongly criticized by writers such as T. S. Eliot, T. E. Hulme, and Cleanth Brooks. In Midwest Quarterly, Asad Al-Ghalith writes, "Throughout most of his writing career, Eliot attempted to write poetry that would reflect his antiromantic taste and preferences," and that Eliot

wanted to break away from the romantic development of poetic structure. However, despite Eliot's dislike of Wordsworth and other Romantic poets, he shared with [Wordsworth] a profound kinship in his concern for spirituality within nature, in his stress on the present in relation to past and future, and in the emphasis on the role of memory to recapture the fleeting moments of childhood.

Some critical work on the romantics has focused on resurrecting the almost-forgotten contributions of women writers, many of whom have historically been marginalized. In MidwestQuarterly, Stephen C. Behrendt points out that readers "are beginning to study a 'British Romanticism' that looks and feels very different from the one that most of their predecessors studied." Behrendt and other scholars have focused on the connections among romantic writers, instead of studying them as if they lived and wrote in isolation. Behrendt also observes Romanticism "involved women far more prominently than has traditionally been acknowledged." He maintains the traditional critical image of the romantic poet wasthatof"the lone male poet whose visionary experience places him beyond domesticity," a view that has persisted since the romantic period, when cultural values prevented people from seeing women's contributions as equal to those of men. Women who dared to enter the "male" territory of poetry were considered unnatural. They were allowed to write novels because novels were considered unimportant. According to Behrendt, this idea of male poets and female novelists has persisted to the present day, but, he comments, "a whole new model has to be generated, one that incorporates men and women authors alike, in all genres."


  • Christopher Hibbert's The Days of the French Revolution (1999) discusses the political and social ideals underlying this revolution that influenced the romantic movement.
  • Claire Tomalin's Jane Austen: A Life provides a fascinating biography of the popular author.
  • Renowned critic Harold Bloom's The Visionary Companion: A Reading of English Romantic Poetry (1971) delves into the works of many of the great English romantic poets.
  • Edited by Thomas H. Johnson, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (1976) has all 1,775 poems arranged in the chronological order of their writing (as far as could be determined). Dickinson was a poet of the American Renaissance in the nineteenth century. Her style is distinctive and unparalleled, noted for its brevity; its beautiful, sometimes morbid, imagery; and for its occasional obscurity.
  • Edited by Pamela Woof in 1991, The Gras-mere Journals (1800-1803), by Dorothy Wordsworth, gives a picture of the domestic life of the Wordsworths and descriptions of William Wordsworth's manner of composition. Dorothy's journals also show how Wordsworth used subjects and metaphors from her private writings for the poems that made him famous. The journals show Dorothy Wordsworth's photographic eye, knowledge of botany, and fine writing style.
  • French romantic novelist Victor Hugo penned his most famous book Les Misérables in 1862, which was a successful bestseller in its day. Les Misérables is the story of a poor man who is transformed by the generous kindness of another person. Jean Valjean eventually rises to success, despite the fact that his past continues to haunt him.
  • Alexander Dumas was a novelist of the romantic style who became famous within his lifetime. His book, The Three Musketeers (1844) continues to be a favorite among young readers today as it is unabashedly filled with adventure, intrigue, and romance.

Despite occasionally falling from critical favor when literary tastes change, the major romantic writers are still considered among the greatest poets and novelists in the English language. Their work continues to influence writers into the twenty-first century.


Kelly Winters

Winters is a freelance writer. In this essay, Winters considers the persistence of romantic ideas in current attitudes about nature and the environment.

Romantic odes may be out of style, and few novels are now written in the style of Jane Austen or Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, but some romantic ideas and ideals are still deeply embedded in our own popular culture, particularly in popular attitudes about nature. Most people do not know it, but our current ideas about the environment and our relationship to it were born during the romantic era.


For the romantics, the vast, uncontrolled wilderness of nature was a holy place, a place where people could retreat from the increasing filth and falsity of civilization. Nature was viewed as "wiser" than humans; it had existed since before humans existed and, if left alone, would continue to flourish. Humans could not produce anything as complex, beautiful, and grand as nature, and they could certainly not improve on anything nature had created. However, by going to wild places, people could align themselves with the harmony and wisdom inherent in nature, and be renewed.


In addition, ecological movements encourage people to think of themselves as kindred to, and part of, the natural world, rather than standing apart from it. This feeling of kinship and oneness is a hallmark of Romanticism.

These views, which persist in our own culture, were new during the romantic era. Until the eighteenth century, people had little time to spare for appreciating nature; they were busy farming, fighting wars, and simply trying to survive. However, the Industrial Revolution gave the new urban middle class time for recreation. It also resulted in pollution and overcrowding in the cities, so these people looked to natural areas, rather than the increasingly unpleasant urban ones, for their recreation. Gardening, nature walks, and appreciation of natural beauty became common pastimes for the first time in history. As Lucy Moore writes in the Ecologist, "For the first time, nature became an object, and this may be the moment the modern environmental movement began."


Through the influence of romantic writers, ordinary people became interested in experiencing nature. For example, Wordsworth, who wrote poems about the beauty and spirituality of nature, was a highly successful poet in his own lifetime and was even appointed poet laureate in 1843, but his guides to the area where he lived were even more popular than his collections of poetry. He lived in the Lake District of England, and his writings about the natural beauty of the area made the Lake District a tourist attraction in the mid-1800s. Travelers visited the area hoping to partake of the same natural beauty, inspiration, and spiritual renewal the poet describes in his writings. Although it seems commonplace now to retreat to nature for renewal, at the time this was a novel idea, and walking in the Lake District and perhaps encountering the poet on his own walks became a kind of fad of the romantic era.

Coleridge, who also lived in the area and was a favorite of Lake District tourists, likewise saw nature as a redeeming and purifying force, and loved wilderness and wildness. According to Moore, Coleridge wrote, "The farther I ascend from animated Nature, from men, and cattle, and the common birds of the woods, and fields, the greater becomes in me the intensity of the feeling of Life."

For a time, Coleridge believed he could build a utopian community that would partake of the spiritually purifying aspects of nature, and he and Robert Southey planned to construct such a community on the then-wild banks of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. Although, like many such utopian dreams, the plan ultimately fell through, Coleridge retained his belief that nature could provide solace and wisdom to people.

Percy Shelley, who was not quite as active in outdoor pursuits, nevertheless wrote, "I love all waste / And solitary places, where we taste / The pleasure of believing what we see / Is boundless, as we wish our souls to be."

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley reflected the romantic view of nature as a place of peace and redemption in Frankenstein. In the book, unlike in the films based on it, the monster is a peaceful and gentle creature. When the monster discovers how cruel humans are, it dreams of fleeing to South America, where it will live peacefully in the forest with a mate Dr. Frankenstein will make for it. They will live simply on the fruits and nuts of the forest, sleeping among the trees: a romantic ideal, a return to the spiritual innocence and purity of the Garden of Eden. However, Dr. Frankenstein, who is afraid of the monster's potential, destroys the female, forcing the monster back to civilization—and civilization's destruction.

Keats was also keenly aware of the destructive human impact on nature, and that appreciation of nature often occurs only when people become aware that natural beauty is fragile and can be destroyed and lost forever. In short, the romantics believed that untouched nature invoked a sense of awe and grandeur within people; that experiencing this awe could allow people to experience a feeling of purification and redemption; that untouched nature was superior to humanity; and that the long-term presence of people in nature could only be detrimental to it.

These principles have long guided attitudes toward the preservation and use of wilderness areas, and continue to the present day. The U.S. Wilderness Act of 1964 provides for the protection and preservation of areas untouched or little-touched by human intervention, where humans can merely be temporary visitors, and where permanent human settlement or construction is not allowed. This idea of nature as pristine and separate from the degrading presence of people goes back to the romantics.

In addition, most campers and hikers have heard the popular phrase "leave no trace," which urges people to minimize their impact on nature to such an extent that, after they leave the wilderness area, it would be difficult or impossible for observers to tell that they were even there. Campers are asked to carry out everything they carry in, and to "take only pictures; leave only footprints" behind. While in the wilderness, people are also asked to respect wildlife by keeping their distance from it, to be as quiet as possible so that the sounds of nature are the only ones heard, and to avoid crowding or overusing any one area. As R. Bruce Hall notes in the Journal of Leisure Research, this philosophy, like other currently prevalent wilderness-use principles, "encourages people to think of themselves as temporary visitors whose presence can only harm nature. . . . [and] emphasize[s] the negative consequences people have on natural areas and on recreation experience." It also emphasizes the benefits that people can gain from experiencing nature in its purest, least-disturbed state.


Wordsworth wrote in his poem "The World Is Too Much With Us," "Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; / Little we see in nature that is ours; / We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!" What he means is that in the frenzy of economic expansion and exploitation of the environment, people have lost touch with the spiritual and creative powers that true contact with nature can provide. Thus, we are out of touch with both the environment and ourselves.

The Industrial Revolution began over two hundred years ago, but we are still experiencing it and its effects on society and nature; the problems of pollution and waste have only increased since that time as industry has grown and become ever more complex. According to James Pinkerton in Foreign Affairs, David Malin Rodman of the World-Watch Institute, an environmental group, noted that it is "the very nature of industrial economic systems to degrade the environment on which they depend." This idea first became prevalent during the Industrial Revolution, when coal-fired factories began spewing black smoke over England's green countryside and dumping toxic wastes into previously clean rivers.

This worry about the negative effects of industry is still widely held today. Toward the end of the twentieth century, with increasing environmental destruction, people became increasingly aware that irreplaceable natural treasures were being degraded or lost, and increasing numbers of species were becoming extinct. Pinkerton writes, "Many people have become aware that unbounded cultivation, extraction, and construction have disastrously degraded the ecosystem of the planet."

As a result of this awareness, previously marginalized ecologically-based political movements, often rooted in romantic ideas about nature, grew and gained so many adherents that they became a part of mainstream political debate. In 1997 in Europe, according to Pinkerton, the ecological political parties had a potential electorate that was almost as large as that of the Christian democratic parties. In the United States, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader came in fourth in the 1996 presidential election and came in second in many areas that were heavily populated by college students. In 2000 Nader came in third in the national election, and some observers claimed that his presence on the ballot diverted a substantial number of voters from the Democratic Party and thus lost the election for Democratic candidate Al Gore. These victories for the environmental parties show that many people, like Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and other romantics, still believe that nature, as a source of renewal, transcendence, and peace, should be celebrated and protected.

Source: Kelly Winters, Critical Essay on Romanticism, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

Klaus Hofmann

In the following excerpt, Hofmann explains that Keats's poem Ode on a Grecian Urn is rooted in a tradition of religious hymns.

They who misquote the title of Keats's ode may not be aware of the truth in their mistake. Indeed, Keats's poem is an ode not "on" but "to" a Grecian urn, most conspicuously so as it opens with a threefold apostrophe and thereby fulfils the requirements of the genre more faithfully than most odes. This faithfulness exposes the poem to the question whether the apostrophe addresses a being worth the effort. Is the addressee an at least potentially responsive partner in the communicative situation of the ode, which is essentially a dialogic one though the utterance may be one-sided in the manner of the dramatic monologue. From its origins in the cult hymn, the genuine partner of an odic address is a divine being, a god, goddess, or a godlike authority, capable of hearing, of understanding, of fulfilling a request. The invocation may not be received, the god may not listen, may not care, may not be willing or able to help—the precariousness of prayer—yet there must be a confidence in, and a possibility of, a gracious reception. This requirement is not withdrawn or diminished in post-religious circumstances with no established godhead to address. Then, the demand on the poem is even heavier. It is now the poem's task to create the authority to which it turns. The post-religious ode has to assume the status of poetic self-sufficiency, of, in Miltonic terms, Satanic self-creation, of being the poet's prayer to himself. Put in philosophical terms: It has to assume aesthetic autonomy. Religious belief is being replaced by the poetic


faith of Coleridge's definition. Now the ode has to prove by its very performance that its address is a valid one, the foremost act of such performance being, in Keats's case, the poetic creation of the urn. To the degree this creation succeeds in the course of the poem, the urn will have proved eligible for the odic address.

In itself, an urn seems an unpromising addressee. An ode to a pot is bound to be ridiculous. Then, what about an urn, an earthenware, at best a marble, pot? Can it bear the burden of an odic apostrophe, its serious solemnity? Is not the danger of bathos unavoidable? Would not the title "Ode to a Grecian Urn" announce a travesty? The embarrassment is evident in some literary critics' endeavor to upgrade the urn, notably into a funeral urn, a move which finds no support in the poem, but provides the opportunity for the critic to enrich the poem with ponderous thoughts on death and transitoriness, or with a plethora of symbolic lore. Conversely, other critics have valiantly embraced the precariousness of the inappropriate object with an emphasis on the abject state of the disused utensil, the piece of debris, which through this abasement is elevated to the state of art. From this point of view Keats's Ode is regarded as ancestral to surrealist translations of discarded utensils into art objects. Mentioning Duchamp's ready-mades, K. S. Calhoon barely suppresses the punning, though etymologically correct, connection between urn and urinal. Obviously the predicament has been noticed and there is no reason to assume that Keats was not aware of it. Is this why Keats avoids the obvious title and swerves to "Ode on a Grecian Urn," a phrase which does not immediately expose the poem to the doom of bathos? But can the poem escape this doom? Do not the first lines quickly give away what the title may have tried to hide: that the poem is an ode to a Grecian urn, boldly confident of its success in establishing the urn's dignity?

The gesture of avoidance in the poem's title which after all announces what it refrains from announcing, namely an ode, which is generally an "ode to," may on the other hand not be a sign of embarrassment by the addressee's lowness, but a symptom of awe in the face of the silent work of art, even fear of the unmediated impact of beauty. Grant Scott senses this: "The prospect of paralysis before the silent beauty of the unravished bride is never far from the speaker's mind. . . . " This anxiety has been explained along psychological and gender lines. In the light of such explanations the sister arts turn out not to be sisters but siblings of different sex with visual art taking the female, verbal art the male part. The Medusa myth has been enlisted to contribute the motif of the petrifying female gaze "that so often charges the ekphrastic encounter between word and image." Awe and fear may turn to resentment which is nourished by the iconophobia traditional to Jewish-Christian culture. But the resentment also inherits iconophobia's ambivalence, oscillating with the desire for what it shuns. This ambivalence may motivate a dialectic which makes ekphrasis reject the image and yet aspire to a pictorial mode of existence in its own, literary ways as Murray Krieger argues in his exposition of the "ekphrastic principle." The Ode's title dares not announce what the Ode is in fact about to venture: to establish a communicative relationship with the urn which, indeed, exists beyond the range of communicative exchange. The Ode is bound to attempt the task of drawing the incommunicative phenomenon into the domain of language and thereby translate language into the urn's aesthetic mode. This amounts to an endeavor to transcend the sphere of communication to which the poem, however, is genuinely attached by its medium, language. The ekphrastic negotiation which a poem addressing a work of visual art is bound to inaugurate will ineluctably be caught in this aporia, which is constitutive of literary art. Adorno's Aesthetic Theory devotes its attention to the dialectic evolving from this aporetic foundation of poetry. Adorno's remark on language and "Etruscan vases in the Villa Giulia" could apply to the Attic urn and Keats's Ode:

Owing to its dual character, language is a constitutive principle of art as well as art's mortal enemy. Etruscan vases in the Villa Giulia articulate something without using communicative language. In fact, the true language of art is speechless.

Will Keats's poem attain the speechlessness of the true language of art? Or will it remain in opposition to the urn, unable to transcend "art's mortal enemy?"

One more hint, to pass over less convincing guesses, issues from the poem's title, suggesting a factual as well as conceptual attachment of urn and poem. The ode is announced like, even as, an epigram, in its Greek origins an inscription in verse usually placed on a statue, tomb, or funerary column. In this regard the most plain and simple-minded inference to be drawn from the poem's title would be to perceive the text of the ode inscribed "on a Grecian urn." This would enrich the poem's discourse on ekphrasis by a recourse to the prototypical encounter of visual and literary art, the epigrammatic fiction of a speaking stone set in relief by the silent stone on which the epigram is inscribed, an encounter devised by the antagonistic collusion of the stonemason and the epigrammatist versed in the rhetoric of prosopopoeia. The epigrammatist gives a fictional voice and, as it were, face, prosopon, to the stone; the mason silences this voice into writing chiselled into the stone, reducing language to a lapidary materiality, which the passer-by may again redeem into speech.

To follow this suggestion made by the title and to assume that Keats meant the Ode to be perceived as an inscription on the urn would, however, stretch poetic license to a degree which seriously strains the poet's credit. Putting an ode in the place of an epigram might be appreciated, even relished as a Romantic disdain of genre rules. But a Greek vase or urn with an English Romantic ode inscribed on it would be too grotesque an invention. The poem rejects this imputation line for line as its speaker inspects the urn's surface without registering, except, perhaps, for the last lines, an appearance of his own words. Nevertheless, the title's suggestion of a collusion or competition between the two genres—ode and epigram—is intriguing and has elicited wily remarks such as Martin Aske's hint at the poem being written "on" the urn, not literally, but as "a parergonal trace which seeks to reinscribe itself on the silent, ineffable space of the absent image of the urn" or "as a parergonal inscription over an absent, or at least never completely represented object." In the final lines of the Ode the epigrammatic genre will emphatically assert its claims and the negotiations between an "Ode to a Grecian Urn" and an "Epigram on a Grecian Urn" will be resumed.

The opening of the poem does not follow the evasive strategy and the oblique suggestions of the title. It sets out with an uninhibited odic paddress, yet avoids both the embarrassment of addressing an unworthy object and the intimidation by an inaccessible phenomenon by avoiding the name— as does, indeed, the rest of the poem. It never, through all its five stanzas, has recourse to a plain "O, urn!" The strategy of getting away from—and with—the odic address to an urn is, in the first three lines, the rhetoric of metaphor. The poem tropes away from the risk of banality or presumptuousness, transfiguring the urn into the "still unravished bride," the "fosterchild," the "sylvan historian." The urn fades behind the images imposed upon it. In this manner the poem establishes a responsible partner. It does so in a halting manner: the ode is in search of its addressee. The first two attempts are inconsequential, suggestive as they may be. The "still unravished bride of quietness" surprises as a conceit of an incipient allegory which does not develop into one. The prospect of such a development is awkward, to say the least. What kind of marriage to the bridegroom "Quietness" may be envisaged? What consummation? What ravishment? Death? A less radical reading may avoid the allegorical personification of quietness and take the word simply as a qualifying genitive, presenting the urn as a quiet virgin. In either case the word "still," read as an adverb, sounds a premonition of doom threatening the virginity of the "yet" unravished bride. Could it be that the ode, with a coy cynicism, emphasizes what it is eager to destroy: the integrity of the urn as a silent, a non-speaking entity, existing beyond the reach of communicative intimacy, a thing of beauty? Was the urn secure in its unravished state as long as it was a bride of quietness, from which this very address tries to abduct her? Whatever the reading, this opening conceit proves a barren one and is not pursued beyond the first line. There is, however, a note struck here which will recur. The notion of stillness and silence will return as a leit-motif throughout the poem. It will soon be taken up and continued in the figures of the frieze on the urn—though with a difference: The stasis, which keeps those figures "for ever" in their position and from achieving what they aspire to, is brought about by their being frozen into an image, while the urn's stillness is qualified by the ambiguity of the word "still," which, as an adverb, suggests the temporality of "not yet." The urn is, after all, subject to the ravages of time.

The second conceit, the one of the "foster-child of silence and slow time," emphasizes the temporality of the urn's stillness. As a fosterchild of "slow time," the urn is capable of a history which, perhaps imperceptibly, may bring about change, fruition, ravishment of whatever kind. The third attempt at a valid invocation seems to take its cue from the second line's emphasis on time and history. As a "sylvan historian" the urn is supposed to know history and to be a source of historical knowledge.

The sequence of three figurative attempts to open a channel to the urn raises doubts about the aptness of the procedure. The rhetoric of metaphor is, after all, grounded in aporia. Metaphor, like its extension, allegory, is resorted to when the proper term is deemed inappropriate or unavailable and a non-proper term is inserted in its place—to the effect of a hovering validity which is held in suspense by the knowledge that the term is not the proper one. The paradox of the wrong term being the only appropriate or possible one accounts for the precariousness of metaphoric speech. The three initial apostrophes of the "Ode" are impaired by this precariousness. They are misnomers. In addition, the attempt at establishing familiarity by inventing a figurative family may block rather than open the way to the urn's identity. The erotic note which is struck by the first address—and which has occasioned numerous interpretations along gender lines— has the awkward courtesy of someone trying to be amorous to another man's bride. The fact that the first two conceits are abandoned is indicative of the speaker's insecurity. The third attempt, "Sylvan historian," seems to hit an appellation capable of carrying the poem. Or does it? Does it perhaps divert the poem into a string of futile digressions, from which it cannot desist and from which it only just reverts in its last stanza? Is the ode by these digressions deferring its end and thereby maintaining its existence—beyond the pleasure principle?

As it stands, the poem settles for the "sylvan historian," whose "flowery tale" will soon absorb the speaker's interest. The approach remains tentative. Vagueness veils the probably female figure, sylph or not, of the "sylvan historian." Is s/he supposed to be a teller of tales, a "storian"? Or is there a historical dimension to what s/he is expected to deliver? A probing into the Greek past, as may well be expected from the fosterchild of "slow time?" And why "sylvan?" Does the epithet refer to the florid style of the teller of a "flowery tale." Does it refer to the leaf-ornament bordering the frieze? Or does it characterize the historian herself? Does it mark her/him as a natural source of intimation whose medium is the symbol, which, in Walter Benjamin's poetic phrase, contains meaning "in its hidden and, if one may say so, sylvan interior." Or is the emphasis on the "naturalness" of the history delivered by the urn, which is not the antiquarian's or the scholar's production but that of the poetic genius who has his authenticity as an instance of nature, writing "history without footnotes," as Cleanth Brooks put it. Obviously, the sylvan historian's history is set in the aesthetic mode; it is a work of art, the sculpted relief on the urn's surface.

Figured as a "sylvan historian," the urn is shifted from the position of addressee to that of the speaker's consort, colleague and competitor in the poetic function of expressing a flowery tale, which the urn, in its sculpted frieze, is said to perform "more sweetly" than the speaker can. The confrontation of the visual against the linguistic mode, of visual art against poetry, of Malerei und Poesie, is broached in these opening lines. Judged by the sensuous, aesthetic criterion of sweetness, visual art is given precedence over verbal art. Yet by attributing to visual art the same task to which he himself is dedicated, namely to tell a tale, the speaker moves the confrontation into the domain of language and loads the dice in favor of the literary mode. Whatever the advantage of visual art in the contest, its achievement will be the same as what the speaker aspires to. Now, to expect pictures to tell a tale is certainly not extraordinary. The narrative element in the visual arts is a prominent issue in art scholarship. It tends, however, to be converted into an issue of literary scholarship. In the context of the Ode's opening stanza the pronounced interest in tale and legend betrays a reluctance to appreciate visual art. The speaker disregards the possibility of a radical heterogeneity of visual art. He asks for tale and detail instead of aesthetically appreciating art and image. He is determined to read, not to behold. To him, the frieze presents a "legend" which he is bound to decipher. The "sylvan historian" is approached as a source of information and the epithet seems to activate the traditional meaning of silva as a source of material: story as store.

The pictorial medium does not readily deliver what the speaker expects. The flowery tale which the sylvan historian is said to express so sweetly is nor forthcoming. The speaker's expectation may have been wrongly placed. He may have been deceived by his own metaphor: The urn may just not be a historian—sylvan or other. Indeed, it insists on its own mode of presentation: a marble relief of figures, frozen into their position, not able to move into the continuum of a tale.

The speaker is undaunted. He is determined to have a tale told him through the pictures of the frieze. With the question "What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape" he loses sight of the urn and its metaphoric disguises and enters a sphere distinct from the urn as such. The pronoun "thy" is the last reference to the sylvan historian or the urn before the latter will be invoked again in the last stanza. The leaf-fringe may be taken as the frame constituting this sphere—as the parergon which Derrida, taking his cue from Kant, develops into the concept and emblem of the margin delimiting the aesthetic mode. The fringe in Keats's ode, to be precise, does not circumscribe the sphere of art as a whole but severs non-representative from representative art within the aesthetic sphere, thereby breaking up the integrity of that sphere. It distinguishes the urn—the "shape"—from the zone of pictorial representation, which, beyond its material reality as part of the urn, is of a different quality: It is an apparition of reality, it "haunts about thy shape." The speaker is intrigued by the urn's display of sculpted images and neglects the possibly beautiful shape of the urn. The urn does not interest him the way the frieze does. The urn's silence may be impressive, yet it is the obvious and plain property of the thing. The silence of the piping piper, by contrast, is of a logical intricacy which will absorb the speaker's interest. The urn's—slow time's fosterchild's—lasting through the ages is venerable, yet it is a durability it has in common with any cup, horse-bit or axe preserved through the centuries. The suspension of time which exempts the youthful singer, the trees, the bold lover from temporality challenges the understanding in a different manner. It is this challenge which the speaker is about to meet—with questionable success. Aesthetic considerations are faded out. What occupies the speaker in these stanzas is not the beauty of the frieze's images. Beauty is not a topic in the ode until it is broached in the last stanza. This decisive strategy of the poem is ignored in the ubiquitous critics' opinion that the beauty of the urn or its frieze is the poem's concern right from the beginning. The word "fair" does occur in stanza two, but it refers to a maiden's beauty, not to the work of art. What is at issue in these stanzas are the intricacies of representation and, by implication, the intricacies of ekphrasis, not beauty.

The speaker's absorption into the pictorial world of the frieze begins as inquisitiveness, manifest in a series of standard questions: What is the story? What is the site? Who are the persons? What is going on? No explicit answer acknowledges the propriety of this inquisitiveness: A lesson whose teaching may eventually be registered, when the last stanza states what is needful to know. Yet critics protest too much when they point out the urn's refusal to meet the speaker's request and expatiate on the urn's secretiveness. After all, it may not tell a tale, but in its own way it provides a wealth of detailed information, which the speaker—and the reader of the poem—can perceive without effort. Nor need the speaker's questioning be denounced as an intrusion when it may more appropriately be perceived as a wondering, even admiring acknowledgement of a sight—with an ekphrastic side-effect of divulging what is being seen. The enquiry clearly shifts towards astonishment as the pronoun proceeds from the interrogative to the affective, exclamatory "what!" "What wild ecstasy?"—pace the question mark—no longer asks a question but expresses amazement. Observation and inquiry give way to empathic participation, which continues through the following stanzas, as the speaker drifts further into an empathic involvement in the imaginary world of the urn's relief, from storied urn to animated bust.

The speaker's naïve participation comes to an end when he suddenly becomes aware of the representational mode, the duplicity of representation and what is represented, the difference of art and life: "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter." The initial consciousness of the unreality of the haunting legend of deities or mortals has faded to some degree in the last four lines of the first stanza. Now it is regained in the puzzling insight that there is a presence of something absent—"unheard melodies." As if taking a hint from Adorno's use of the passage as the epigraph to his Schönberg essay in Prisms, Marshall Brown has developed the topos into a negative dialectic which vindicates the presence of what is materially absent as a constitutive feature in art. In tacit propinquity to Kant who, in elaborating the third moment of the judgment of taste, distinguishes "form" as the constituent of the true judgment of taste from "matter" ("Reize und Rührungen"/"charms and emotions"), Brown demonstrates the formative function of what is unheard, unseen, unread in given passages of a work of art, passages in which the artist achieves the logically impossible: produces absolute form which is not the form of anything, but "performs" by sheer absence of something formed. The argument comes close to Derrida's elaboration of the parergon, the forming frame which becomes manifest after any substance has been whittled away, but vanishes at the moment of its pure manifestation. Being neither within the work nor without, it disappears in the abysmal gulf of negativity from which, however, it performs the function of framing. Taking its cue from the praise of "unheard melodies" in Keats's ode Brown's vindication of form against "base materialisms and empty formalisms" (Turning Points 267) discovers in those lines more than the poem's speaker does. The speaker puts into a nutshell what he does not unfold. By him the unheard melodies are not considered in the context of the musical performance where they may function as "structure, skeleton, attitude, feeling" (Turning Points 255). They are perceived as melodies silenced by their transference into the sphere of visual art. Here the poem briefly exhibits a case of ekphrasis involving the other sister art: Music is presented by visual art, with a certain sleight of sculptor's rhetoric presenting the piper as a metonymy of his music. The sculptor's ekphrasis of music is ekphrastically presented by the ode, which in turn is a musical, at least an audible, presentation, muted into a written text. A cunning introduction to the poem's central topic! The recourse to the criterion of sweetness recalls the previous confrontation of the sylvan historian's tale and the speaker's rhyme and again sides with the greater sweetness of the mute art which—if the term applies—enchants the speaker, the singer of Keats's verse. What are we, readers and listeners, to make of his chant? Or is it cant? Is he not up to appreciating the heard melody of the song he is singing, of which he is the source and the instrument? Does he disavow the aural quality of his own utterance, the rhymes and rhythms of his verse, its sound effects and paronomasias? Evidently, an ode, aoidh, is not a "ditty of no tone." Would he prefer his song, a "heard melody," to be muted into the representation of a song, a melody unheard? Does he aspire to a marble image of himself chanting the ode? Is the desired upgrading indeed performed by the written text which may be read without being heard? Is the text to the speaker what the urn is to the piper—the cold pastoral transfiguring his song into a written poem? This consideration, of course, breaks open the closed entity of the poem which harbors no writer, only a speaker. The written text of the poem is not contained within the poem. The notion of the frame, the parergon, again asserts itself. The text of the ode is there to frame and present the speaker's or singer's performance, which itself is not a writing performance and therefore excludes the text. The poem is contained in and by the text, not by itself. Not being self-contained it foregoes the absoluteness of aesthetic autonomy. It depends. On the written text, as this text depends on its writer, the poet, perhaps on the poet's amanuensis, who received the poet's words as the poet, in Milton's conceit, received the call of the muse: as a "ditty," a dictation prospective of its mutation into a written, eventually printed, text.

The coincidence of frieze and text both transposing the audible into silence highlights a connection of what is conventionally arranged in opposition: the visual and the verbal. As a written text the word dwells like the melody unheard in the visual realm, transcending the aural sphere. To the speaker's mind and the poem's logic the negation of aural sensuousness overrules the positivity of visual sensuousness and attributes to mute visuality a non-sensuous, spiritual quality: A curious revision of the traditional affiliation of spirit, voice and hearing on the one hand and body, image and beholding on the other arranges visually mediated spirituality against aural sensuality. What elevates those inaudible melodies is that they are piped "to the spirit." In the same vein the poem, which has saved the speaker's odic utterance into the permanence of a written text, plays to the spirit. As "ditties of no tone" both may be perceived by intellectual intuition, the Romantic philosophers' stone.

The visual as the spiritual medium is played off against the aural as the sensuous medium and this resumes the reflection on the representational mode which has been the poem's concern since the speaker's attention turned to the frieze's images. Spirituality is ascribed not to the visual sense as such but to the world of semblance which is brought about by visual mimesis. Aural mimesis, though well established in onomatopoeic practices, hardly sustains a separate sphere corresponding or referring to a first world but tends to fall back into the continuum of sound and noise. It repeats rather than represents. Music—"heard melodies"—is, pace Aristotle, not a mimetic art and derives its claims to spirituality from other quarters. Visual representation genuinely establishes the realm of semblance in its ambiguity of illusion and deception on the one hand and apparitional spirituality on the other. Oscillating between deception and epiphany, between idol and ideal, Schein conditions the relation between beauty and truth in a precariousness which quivers in the word specious.

The speaker falls for both, the deception and the ideality of a realm far above "all breathing human passion." True, he has achieved an awareness of the peculiar mode of representational art. He ought to be conscious of the different modes of existence and not to perceive the scene in an in appropriate immediacy. There, behind the mirror, is the realm of melodies heard, here the zone of melodies unheard. But the neat distinction is immediately blurred. In an inconclusive conclusion— "therefore"—the speaker exhorts the "soft pipes" to play on, an exhortation lost on pipes whose metonymic softness has changed into hard marble. They do play on—unheard melodies have to be performed too, as we have learned—but the art of performing unheard melodies has been taken over by the art of representation behind which the live music has vanished. This is what the speaker half knows and half forgets. He gets entangled in an interpolation of the two levels or modes, resulting in the paradoxical statements which posit the coexistence of mutually exclusive qualities. The coalescence of life and art, endowing the life processes with the atemporality of the sculpted image, is an achievement reserved to verbal, denied to visual presentation. The poem is, in these passages, an exercise in and comment on the possibilities of verbal ekphrasis, which comprehends both representation and the life represented. Its lesson is confirmed by default in critics' unthinking attempt to grasp the verbal performance again in a visual image. Helen Vendler's recourse to the well-known duck/rabbit sketch misses the point. Whilst the picture insists on an either/or perception, though this may speed up to a vertiginous flickering, language can embrace the alternatives within its regular syntax. Misled by the example in the other medium, Vendler believes that there is a "quick shuttling back and forth in the speaker's mind between immersion in the fervent matter and recognition of the immobile medium" (128). In the same vein James Heffernan argues: "Up to the very moment when the urn finally speaks, the poem seems to tell us that we cannot have both [i.e. fixed beauty of visual art and the language of narrative] at once, that we must choose between the narratable truth of a passionately mutable life and immutable beauty of graphic art" (114). Yet it is this distinction which the poem tries to obliterate. The poem, unlike the sketch, confounds the two modes of existence, though it does not fuse them into a unio mystica as Wasserman contends.

The speaker loses orientation in his confrontation with three tiers of existence—the live scene, its pictorial representation, the verbal ekphrasis. He is fascinated—and fascinates the reader willing to go along with him—by bizarre contaminations of the three. He is tricked into seeing breathing human passion transported beyond the realm of breathing human passion. He reim-ports the petrified figures into an imaginary life-world to the effect of a perpetual "now." The atemporality of the representation is converted into perpetuity. The speaker does not reflect on the logic of this prestidigitation. He simply falls for it, answering effect with affect. Like the naïve playgoer, who encourages and warns the drama-tis personae, he takes part in what he half sees, half imagines—exhorting the pipes to play on, giving instruction and consolation to the youthful singer and to the lover. The next stanza parades the speaker in a state of abandon, whipping up happiness, "More happy love! more happy, happy love!" The "more" may even lose the function of the grammatical comparative and turn into a hungry cry for "more." As he attributes "happy love" to the marble figures, he wallows in it himself, getting carried away in the rhythm of "happy, happy" which pulls the poem down to a child's performance on a hobby horse, mocking the "Hoppe, hoppe Reiter" of the German nursery. Closer to home and to the text is, of course, "The Idiot Boy," the galloping rhythm of "happy, happy John," which in turn echoes that of Wilhelm's horse, the "Hurre, hurre, hopp hopp hopp," in G. A. Bürger's "Lenore."

This loss of distance and control has been remarked on, has given occasion to blame and ridicule, or to awkward excuses, though it may also be read with an ear for an interlacing of sympathy, envy and rejection. To extol the stanza, as Thomas McFarland does, as an outcome of "the white-hot moment of genius" reflects unfavorably on the concept of genius and suggests that the poet may have burnt his fingers. Indeed, the stanza may be called silly, the more so if the old meaning of "seely," preserved in the German selig, is recalled. Yet it has its place in the poem. James O'Rourke ascribes its poetic failure to the speaker's futile attempts at ekphrasis—by extension to the generic futility of ekphrasis—which will only be overcome when the speaker extricates himself from his subservience to visual art and moves "beyond the recycling of the imagery contained on the urn, andtoofferits ownantithesis. ... Solongasthe poem attempts to reproduce the imagery contained on the urn, it can only repeat itself. . . . The repetition of 'happy, happy boughs' . . . demonstrates, in its monotony, what happens when the simultaneity of the visual arts is transposed directly into poetry. . . . " O'Rourke concludes that "the speaker is disabled to a degree that verges on stuttering." His very involvement alienates the speaker from the condition he tries to render verbally. The verbal medium turns the sameness of the happy still-life into repetitiveness, and the imaginary participation in the blissful state of the frieze's figures in fact throws the speaker into the condition of a "breathing human passion," which "leaves a heart high sorrowful and cloy'd," the very condition he thought he had evaded. His reaching out for those figures' happiness leaves him atbestina state of being too happy in their happiness. Eventually he abandons this futile attempt and reflects, in the stanza's last lines, on the contrast between the two conditions.

These explorations take the poem far beyond a simple deliberation about the respective advantages of life and art, a question which preoccupies the Stillinger collection of 1968, with Wasserman's book of 1953 and Cleanth Brooks' essay of 1945 in the background, and makes a recent handbook fall behind the state of current discussion. Nor does the poem offer information on Keats's personal preference of art to life or vice versa. Speculations whether Keats's predilection was with "his fair love's ripening breast" rather than with marble ones may be appreciated in a jocular mood which made Cleanth Brooks cite e. e. cummings' funny rhyme, "A pretty girl that naked is / Is worth a million statues." The ode does not provoke, even less satisfy such curiosity, nor does it let us overhear Keats in person.

As the poem proceeds, the activities which suggested happiness are superseded by a scene which, while presenting the festiveness of a communal sacrifice, suggests desolation, victimization, down to details like the "peaceful citadel" the peace of which reverberates with the threat of war for which a citadel, after all, provides. The urn's presentations now extend beyond the state of bliss. If the image of the lowing heifer intimates to Paul Fry (256) another unheard melody then this is certainly not a sweet one. Reverting to the questioning of the first stanza, the speaker is not satisfied with what the urn's frieze presents but supplements the scene of the sacrificial procession to the green altar with the conjectural "little town by river or sea-shore, or mountain-built." The threefold option is another comment on the advantage of literary as against visual presentation. Literary art can propose three versions of the little town's site; visual presentation, short of giving three different pictures, would have to decide where to situate it. The extension of the poem's vista beyond what the urn exhibits overrules the limitations of ekphrasis as a, however fictive, description of a given work of art. In an act of "ekphrastic rivalry" a sample of verbal poesis not subservient to a preceding sculptural poesis is inserted. This allows a fleeting glimpse into the poet's workshop. For once the speaker practices what is otherwise the poet's privilege, which, in reverse, amounts to a Hitchcockian cameo appearance of the poet in the guise of the speaker. There is a difference, however, between the poet devising the sculpted urn and the speaker's invention. The latter is equivocal. It may suggest a little town and it may suggest the picture of a little town, an imagined addition to the urn's frieze. The town is temporarily silent as its inhabitants have left for the procession and will be back by evening or next morning. As an image, however, the deserted little town is frozen in its desolation. The silent rendering of actual silence—more so than the previous metamorphosis of heard melodies into unheard ones—invites the equivocation of two spheres and a conflation of the world of history and the world of art. In previous stanzas a confusion of both sides of the mirror of representation brought about the perturbation of a charmed victim of art's delusive power. In stanzas two and three the speaker was intrigued, puzzled and duped by the paradoxes he himself conjured up by his mixing with the marble creatures of the Greek artist, insisting on their timeless existence and at the same time insinuating life and a temporal continuum. Now, in stanza four, the speaker has progressed from dizzying entanglement to a stance of intellectual control, even sophistication, displaying Romantic wit and irony. Intersecting the level of reality with the level of semblance he sees the town desolate because its inhabitants have moved into the sphere of art from which there is no return: an Attic Hamlin Town. The complaint that not a soul can return to tell that not a soul can return adds to the absurdity of the surrealist joke and superadds the notion of the revenant, the Gothic figure of the returnee who cannot return. The aesthetic sphere throws its spell over the historical world, the little town, and assimilates it to its timeless state.

Many critics discover in this stanza's reference to a little town, which is not actually pictured on the urn, the poem's reaching out to historical reality, a break-through to a new dimension. Here, it is alleged, the poem achieves its genuine identity which has been thwarted up to this stanza by the speaker's fixation on the urn's figures. In addition, the engagement in historical reality and its temporal dimension is said to bring about the poem's turn to narrativity. Such interpretations attempt to recruit the poem for historicist discourse. Temporality is the shibboleth which a poem has to master in order to be worth considering. A variant of the historicist approach is offered by James O'Rourke who, while critical of the McGann school, also sees the poem coming into its own in stanza four, no longer idolizing the "sentimental beauty" of illusionary art but presenting "a beauty that is real." The rhetoric of temporality is extended to that of allegory which this stanza is said to offer. The lack of evident allegory is made up by the critic's allegorizations: For O'Rourke the empty town "becomes an image for the final destiny of these figures who vanish into the abyss of time," a conceit in the wake of Wasserman's earlier invention of a pilgrim's progress, a "passage of souls from the world-town to a heaven-altar, from which there is no return" (43)—a construct which provoked mocking remarks from Leo Spitzer (80, n. 12). Helen Vendler's remark that the procession is invested "with the weight of life's mysteries of whence and whither" (125) is another instance of the allegorizing approach.

Both ways of inculcating a historical dimension, a straightforward one or an allegorized one, disregard the fact that the inspection of the frieze continues in this stanza and that the poem continues exploring the effects and perplexities of representation, notably the interplay of temporal event and still image. By missing the joke about the exodus of the little town's community through the looking-glass of art and seeing the poem open a door out to historical reality critics are in fact victims of the joke. Temporality has been on the poem's agenda all along, in the mythological and pastoral scene of previous stanzas as well as in the scene from communal life in the fourth. Rather than invent a sudden shift in the poems—or its speaker—from being under the spell of images to being aware of historical reality one might pay attention to the poem's persistent negotiation of the representational relation, which juxtaposes the temporal and atemporal modes of existence. This attention may bring about an awareness not only of the poem's historical sensibility but also of the Romantic poem as a historical phenomenon. The poem's reflecting on art's vampiric power of draining life and assimilating the victim to its own mode of existence, oscillating between ideality and an uncanny "apparitioning," may be a valid contribution towards a definition of the Romantic moment in history.

The fifth stanza—perhaps following the cue given by the last syllable of the fourth stanza's last word, the only appearance of the sequence "urn" in the poem—resumes the invocatory pose, incidentally the rhyme pattern, too, of the first stanza and, in one respect, confers symmetry on the poem, in another respect breaks the poem up by practically restarting it. The restart is remarkable for the poem's or the speaker's change of attitude. At last he faces the urn again. He is still aware of the sculpted frieze, but its pastoral scenes now stand in metonymically for the urn, the "Cold Pastoral." He has extricated himself from his absorption in the world of the urn's relief and resumes the odic invocations of the first stanza, even venturing the odic "O." But now he is on different terms with the urn. Gone are the metaphoric transfigurations. With "Attic shape" the poem comes closest to calling the urn an urn. The mocking sound of the paronomasia "fair attitude" somewhat dilutes the factuality of the new approach, but sticks to the facts, the Attic provenance and character of the urn, risking a pun rather than resorting to an awkward "fair Atticness." The new approach is firmly established in the—at last and for the first time—factual description of the artefact. The urn's figures are now recognized as "marble men and maidens." Silence, formerly turned by a troping fancy into a foster-parent, is now simply attributed to "form," a term which recalls scholarly rather than poetic diction. "Cold Pastoral" acknowledges the quality of the artefact which has previously been ignored. "Pastoral" is the technical term for the genre in question. All in all, the fifth stanza brings a thorough revision of the previous performance, even an invalidation of the four previous stanzas. Invalid and inappropriate, so the final stanza's verdict, was the previous approach to the urn, the absorption into the world of representation and the neglect of truly aesthetic judgment. Involved in logical puzzles and equivocations, first as victim, then as master, at times indulging in an affective consumption, even consummation, of the picture-frieze, the speaker had lost sight of the urn. Now, he shows a new regard for the urn, contemplating instead of inquiring. Above all, he introduces the concept of beauty—with the word "fair" in the stanza's first line, eventually in the urn's message. The revision of the last stanza is a new vision, an aesthetic vision. At last the urn figures as a thing of beauty. It is the speaker's new insight that the encounter with the work of art was foiled as long as the aesthetic judgment of its beauty was displaced by usage— intellectual or emotional. However, he does not remain in an attitude of adoration and aesthetic appreciation. Eventually his newly won attitude is cast into knowledge presented as the urn's teaching, articulated by the speaker: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty." By this dictum and the confirmatory comment on it the poem stands corrected and redeemed. After a process of erring and mistaking it has eventually worked out its aesthetic salvation. Or, has it?

The message itself is by no means as vapid as detractors would have us believe, nor is it in need of a silly scatological joke in order to reveal its meaning. The point it makes may have been blunted by ubiquitous use, yet it governs the idealistic aesthetics of the Romantic era, most explicitly in F. W. J. Schelling's System of Transcendental Idealism, which, through the mediation of S. T. Coleridge, was brought into the English discourse on art, aesthetics and the imagination. Schelling appoints, in an ontologizing development of the function of the power of judgment in Kant's Critique, the production of the beautiful work of art as the anticipation of what philosophy aspires to establish: truth. In the final section of System Schelling states that

it is self evident that art is at once the only true and eternal organ and document of philosophy. . . . Art is paramount to the philosopher, precisely because it opens to him, as it were, the holy of holies, where burns in eternal and original unity, as if in a single flame, that which in nature and history is rent asunder, and in life and action, no less than in thought, must forever fly apart. . . .

Philosophy was born and nourished by poetry in the infancy of knowledge, and with it all those sciences it has guided to perfection; we may thus expect them, on completion, to flow back like so many individual streams into the universal ocean of poetry from which they took their source. . . .

Hegel affirms the truth of beauty when, in the introduction to his Aesthetics, he states that "art's vocation is to unveil the truth in the form of sensuous artistic configuration." The urn's dictum can be seen in close propinquity to Hegel's central definition of the concept of beauty as "das sinnliche Scheinen der Idee," the "sensuous appearance of the idea":

Now we said that beauty is Idea, so beauty and truth are in one way the same. Beauty, namely must be true in itself. But looked at more closely, the true is nevertheless distinct from the beautiful. That is to say, what is true is the Idea, the Idea as it is in accordance with its inherent character and universal principle, and as it is grasped as such in thought . . . Now, when truth in this its external existence is present to consciousness immediately, and when the Concept remains immediately in unity with its external appearance, the Idea is not only true but beautiful. Therefore the beautiful is characterized as the pure appearance of the Idea to sense.

Hegel's careful distinction states the identity of beauty and truth "in one way" (einer Seits) yet does not admit reciprocity, truth not exhausting itself in beauty but coming into its own as thought. The urn's chiastic assertion of the identity of beauty and truth, truth and beauty, seems to override such reservation and therefore expose itself to questions as to its tenability, though the slight disturbance of the chiasm—the sylleptic omission of the second "is"—has been read as indicating a non-reciprocity. The commentary, in any case, shifts the issue of truth in a Hegelian fashion from the confines of beauty to its epistemic homeland. With this move the assertion of identity pronounced in the maxim is again subject to the criterion of truth in the commentary's emphasis on knowing. Taken as knowledge, the definition of truth as beauty may not be true after all, or, in a historical dimension, it may have passed its moment of truth, the epoch of classical Kunstreligion.

The qualification of the urn's dictum as sufficient knowledge relegates both the urn's dictum and the urn's commentary on it to the status of a possibly superannuated and self-serving wisdom, from which the poem may very well distance itself. And what authenticates the dictum as the urn's wisdom in the first place? The imputation of the dictum as the urn's direct utterance is proposed by interpretations, which, supported by the officious editorial act of hedging the two lines in quotation marks, attempt to isolate the urn's message from the poem in order to keep the latter free from "aestheticist teaching" or to keep it at an ironic distance. Such interpretations establish the very sphere of aestheticist irresponsibility which these critics denounce. Meaning to demonstrate a no-nonsense realism they indeed fall for the delusion of a speaking urn—in Spitzer's words "a Grecian miracle"—whilst the poem realistically counts on the mediation of a speaker. This, of course, complicates the issue. If the speaker lends his voice to the urn, why not his words, in a ventriloquist fashion? Then, who is talking?

One way of attributing the final pronouncement to the silent urn is to assume it being written on the urn's body, with the speaker acting as the reader of the inscription. What the title of the Ode suggested may at last have come true—in a modest, yet credible, version. A Romantic ode written on a Grecian urn would have been a preposterous proposition. An epigram written on a Grecian urn, however, may be acceptable even to the fastidious reader. The "leaf-fringed legend" of the first stanza may in this case be read as a first reference to the inscription, although this would raise the question why the speaker could not read it right away—granting the poetic licence of an English text on an Attic urn. . . .

And yet—Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" has charmed and will charm readers into the persuasion of having read a beautiful poem. The last stanza's acclamation of the urn's beauty throws the impression of beauty like a veil over the poem which, not least by this same stanza's manoeuvers, keeps its generic as well as historic distance from the manifestation of beauty. The poem's claim to beauty is thoroughly exploded by its performance, and yet, like the condensation of a previously evaporated substance, a secondary beauty settles on the poem's surface, spreading a bloom which suffices to win over the aesthetic judgment. This bloom may be taken to be a reflection of the poem's desire which is denied fulfilment for generic and historic reasons. In this manner Keats's ode exerts the power of a nostalgic reminder of a vanished condition which lends it an aura of beauty.

Source: Klaus Hofmann, "Keats's Ode to a Grecian Urn," in Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 45, No. 2, Summer 2006, pp. 251-84.

Susan J. Wolfson

In the following essay, Wolfson examines four poetic works of the Romantic period, including The Rime of the Ancient Mariner , to show why interpreting an "uncertain" poem "must become an active seeking and generating of meaning."


In 1799 William Blake reminded the Reverend Dr. Trusler, "The wisest of the Ancients considerd what is not too Explicit as the fittest for Instruction, because it rouzes the faculties to act." This comment may be applied to the rhetorical activity of much Romantic poetry as well, especially in poems in which logical structures—the plots of an argument, a tale, or an informing legend—are the expected means of instruction. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, The Thorn, "La Belle Dame sans Merci," and "Ode on a Grecian Urn" all unfold mysteries against potential sources of interpretation: moral lessons, arguments, glosses, village testimony, portentous encounters, spectral legends. Yet however much such sources may "rouze" the mind to render intelligible "what is not too Explicit," in these poems, the materials invoked for that purpose themselves become invaded by what Keats calls "uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts." If these poems arouse expectation that there is a secure logic to be discovered for their perplexing


circumstances, they tend to dramatize the difficulties of such discovery more than its success.

These are poems, in other words, about problems in interpretation, involving questions that go to the heart of the Romantic concern with language itself: What is the status of explication or logical argument in poems that appear to frustrate such modes of discourse even as they put them forth? What kind of poem, or poetry, does this activity produce? One effect, certainly, is to cast into doubt the principles of coherence (the causal sequences) on which plots and arguments alike rely and to foreground the less certain, uneasy motions of mind attempting to describe such principles in the circumstances that have compelled its attention. Such stress yields a poetic syntax more psychological than logical in organization, more affective than narrative in its procedures. These poems all show the degree to which interpretation cannot consist simply of deciphering hidden patterns of meaning or discovering causal sequences, but must become an active seeking and generating of meaning.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and The Thorn dramatizes the efforts of their speakers to elucidate mystery through recourse to the logic of moral argument and the logic of narrative, respectively. The Mariner's "Rime" itself involves several kinds of interpretation, but the most blatant sense-making scheme in Coleridge's text—the Marginal Gloss—is amassed against the Mariner's "Rime" as a parallel commentary, making the poem as a whole bear the signature of two distinct intelligences: that of the riming Mariner and that of the Marginal Editor. In The Thorn, Wordsworth entertains dilemmas of interpretation in the body of the poem itself; moreover, he diminishes the locutional differences between the narrator of the tale and the voice of his logic-seeking questioner—as if to suggest a unity of enterprise. In both these lyrical ballads, the sources of interpretive authority and the logical patterns they promote or delineate never quite emerge as "points and resting places in reasoning" independent of "the fluxes and refluxes of the mind" trying to interpret.

So psychological an emphasis (and the poetic texture it effects) must have impressed Wordsworth and Coleridge alike as a revolutionary enough experiment in the language of poetry. Yet Coleridge's belief that "the best part of human language derived from reflection on the acts of the mind itself" was not to be given its most radical poetic treatment until a generation later. Keats explicitly features the questions of interpretation that haunt The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and The Thorn in his own lyrical ballad "La Belle Dame sans Merci"—a poem that bears a structural resemblance to The Thorn. Not long after, he was at work on a series of odes (of which "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is the most striking example) in which he not only makes a premise of the problems of interpretation all these lyrical ballads trace with increasing intensity, but extends that negotiation with uncertainty to the reader's engagement with the play of his rhyme.


Today, most readers of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner are probably not as bothered as was Coleridge's acquaintance, the poet and essayist Mrs. Barbauld, about the "improbable" nature of his story. The second "fault" of which she complained to the author, however, remains something of a notorious vexation for many modern readers—namely, that the poem "had no moral." Coleridge is willing to cede the point on "probability"; but "as to the want of a moral," he counters, the poem's "chief fault, if I might say so, was the obtrusion of the moral sentiment so openly on the reader as a principle or cause of action in a work of pure imagination." Yet in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Coleridge not only seems to deplore "moral sentiment"; in this work of pure imagination, he seems to want to baffle the effort to discover any principle of action. Indeed, he continues his remarks by declaring that his poem "ought to have no more moral than the Arabian Nights' tale of the merchant's sitting down to eat dates by the side of a well and throwing the shells aside, and lo! a genie starts up and says he must kill the aforesaid merchant because one of the date shells had, it seems, put out the eye of the genie's son." Coleridge emphasizes the causal vocabulary with knowing irony, for to the mind of the date-eater, the genie has produced moral necessity from a chance event and consequence.

But before considering what kind of moral paradigm that tale offers to the reader of Coleridge's poem, we need to turn to the Mariner himself, who finds moral uncertainties in the central circumstance of his "Rime." The world he describes, as readers from Wordsworth to the present have noted, is one informed by inscrutable forces; nature is unpredictably solicitous or persecutory, benevolent or tyrannous. As in "Dejection," the language that can be read from nature's appearances often seems barely more than the fiction of a desperate imagination. Indeed, the foggy atmosphere from which the Albatross emerges, and which always surrounds its presence, suggests both inner and outer weather:

    At length did cross an Albatross,
    Thorough the fog it came;
    As if it had been a Christian soul,
    We hailed it God's name.

Despite the appealing rhyme of "Albatross" with "cross" (here and subsequently), the Mariner's "As if" has the effect of raising a question about what "principle or cause of action" (if any) is actually involved. For the conjecture, uttered in fogbound misery, seems to describe primarily the hopes of an anxious crew, rather than anything positive about the bird itself. The Mariner and crew attempt repeatedly to convert conjecture into a syntax of event and consequence that can join the Albatross to the fate of their ship: when the splitting of the ice and the rising of a good south wind follow the advent of the bird, they hail it as the agent of their release; when the fog disperses (along with the ice and snow) after the Mariner kills the bird, the crewmen reinterpret the Albatross as the cause of the fog, and their release into sunshine and fair breezes as a consequence of its death; and when the same breezes fail and the "glorious" sun becomes "bloody," the crewmen imagine themselves plagued by the Mariner's killing of the Albatross and rue that act. What are we to make of this continual shuffling of logic? Even Wordsworth, usually not averse to making the reader "struggle," sides with Coleridge's perplexed readers and against his "Friend" in the "Note to the Ancient Mariner" he wrote for the second edition of Lyrical Ballads. He cites, among other difficulties, the "defect" "that the events having no necessary connection do not produce each other." The arbitrary interpretations that gather around the Albatross are a case in point. Each new scheme of causality does not clarify any "necessary connection" between the bird and the state of the weather, as much as all together expose the fiction of interpretive acts: ascertainment of the bird's value emerges after the fact, as a logic of cause and effect is imposed on a mere sequence of events. As in the tale of the genie and the date-eater, cause and effect are matters of convenient collation rather than of inevitable connection. We begin to sense that if the Albatross signifies anything, it is the very ambiguity of signs—that is, the ambiguity with which the external world vexes a desire for interpretive certainty.

The language of cause and consequence not only surrounds the Albatross but is the very principle upon which a narrative must proceed, and so the problem of collation and connection extends to the listener of the Mariner's tale. How is one supposed to coordinate the two key events upon which his story depends: the killing of the Albatross and the blessing of the snakes? The way the Mariner himself represents these acts makes more of their irrationality than of their moral dimensions: "I shot the ALBATROSS" merely joins subject and predicate, rather than explains the act; and even when that act is apparently redeemed by the blessing of the water-snakes, this, too, is given without reference to a conscious motivation: "I blessed them unaware." The parallel syntax of "I shot" and "I blessed" does make a neat pattern for the sampler homily with which the Mariner caps his tale: "He prayeth best, who loveth best / All things both great and small: / For the dear God who loveth us, / He made and loveth all." Nonetheless, a listener cannot escape awareness that this moral is for its bearer embedded in a self-denying context: the Mariner is doomed to eternal exclusion from the love and prayer he preaches. Ironically, he isolates and terrifies his auditors more than he consoles them with any sense of God's inclusive love. The would-be Wedding-Guest's "wiser" state notwithstanding, that listener at least is also left "sadder" for having heard the "Rime"—perhaps more "stunned" than instructed by the Mariner's will over him. Denied the "goodly company" of the marriage feast, the Wedding-Guest's very name is rendered meaningless. Left "of sense forlorn," this student of the Mariner's lesson finds himself, instead, a participant in the Mariner's alienation: listener and tale-teller alike seem at the end of their encounter "forlorn" of common "sense"—the comfort of living in a world of rational cause and consequence. As Coleridge remarks in the "Conclusion" of his own biography, "there is always a consolatory feeling that accompanies the sense of a proportion between antecedents and consequents . . . giv[ing], as it were, a substratum of permanence, of identity, and therefore of reality, to the shadowy flux of Time."

What denies the Mariner and all his listeners this sense of proportion is that the question that is the efficient cause of his narration—"What manner of man art thou?"—eludes certain answering. What is his "substratum" of identity? Is he a killer of an Albatross, a blesser of water-snakes, a preacher of God's love, or an agent of contamination? The question is voiced originally by the Mariner's first auditor, the Hermit, and as we learn, it wrenches the Mariner "With a woful agony" that requires nothing less than a retelling of all the events of his ordeal. Yet as tortured and elaborate as the Mariner's response is, it remains indeterminate: the question generates his "Rime," and his "Rime" regenerates the question. Its conclusion, in fact, gestures toward its perpetual rehearsal in the shadowy flux of time:

    Since then, at all uncertain hour,
    That agony returns:
    And till my ghastly tale is told,
    This heart within me burns.

Endlessly navigating about a core of mysterious events, the Mariner can never capture their informing logic: his text circles about this absent center but always begins and concludes in agonizing uncertainty. Nor does Coleridge's ballad itself secure the tidy closure of "moral sentiment," ending instead with a register of the aftereffect of the Mariner's tale in the mind of his stunned, forlorn auditor. If the Mariner himself "Is gone," he leaves the trace of his mystery in that interior realm, making the truest issue of his "ghastly tale" the way it haunts a listener's imagination. "I was never so affected with any human Tale," Charles Lamb wrote to Wordsworth; "After first reading it, I was totally possessed with it form any days...the feelings of the man under the operation of such scenery dragged me along like Tom Piper's magic Whistle.—" Another listener confessed to feeling "insulated" in the wake of hearing the poem recited by its author: "a sea of wonder and mystery flows round [me] as round the spell-stricken ship itself."

The effect of the Mariner's "Rime" in leaving its readers thus "possessed," despite the patent moral at its close, is amplified by the interpretive apparatus with which Coleridge surrounds the text of the "Rime." The "Argument" at the head of the 1798 poem is primarily descriptive, concerned mainly with the course of the Mariner's ship and alluding only briefly to "the strange things that befell" as if by chance, accident, or inscrutable agency. With the "Argument" of 1800, however, Coleridge introduces terms of moral logic and potential instruction: "the Ancient Mariner cruelly and in contempt of the laws of hospitality killed a Sea-bird and . . . was followed by many and strange Judgements." Yet in the 1802 and 1805 editions of Lyrical Ballads Coleridge dropped the "Argument" altogether, as if he had decided not to prejudice his reader with authorial signals, but to let his poem work its own effect. The next publication of the poem in Sibylline Leaves (1817) strikes a compromise, supplying a marginal gloss instead of an argument. Like the "Argument" of 1800, the Gloss often brings a moral interpretation to bear on the Mariner's story. Unlike the "Argument," however, the Gloss is a parallel text, in effect competing with the "Rime" for the reader's attention, rather than supervising it. It presumes to order the Mariner's ordeal with a logic that his own "Rime" does not disclose—if supplying the "necessary connection[s]" whose absence Wordsworth, among others, regretted. "And lo! the Albatross proveth a bird of good omen," it declares with the authority of biblical exegesis. "The ancient Mariner inhospitably killeth the pious bird of good omen," it avers, judgment in its every other word. Or taking as a cue the Mariner's fervent hope that "Sure my kind saint took pity on me," the Gloss confidently interprets a necessary connection: "By grace of the holy Mother, the ancient Mariner is refreshed with rain." The voice of the Gloss confronts the reader as the genie does the date-eater, starting up to declare moral necessity at every turn. Yet far from clarifying whatever connections between events the "Rime" may have left obscure, the very presence of a Gloss emphasizes their absence and points to the need for explicit terms of instruction in a circumstance where all is interrogative ("Why look'st thou so?" "wherefore stopp'st thou me?" "What manner of man art thou?"). Indeed the final marginal comment, "an agony constraineth . . . [the Mariner] to teach, by his own example, love and reverence to all things that God made and loveth," gives the rehearsal of that lesson a psychological urgency ("agony") even as it declares a moral principle. Despite the faith readers such as Robert Penn Warren have placed in the authority of the Gloss, it persists as another fiction—a parallel account of the ordeal recounted by the Mariner's "Rime," or an account of another ordeal: the attempt to make sense of the Mariner's language.

There is one frame, however, that Coleridge retains in every edition, namely, the voice of the anonymous balladeer with which the poem begins and ends. Readers tend, as Lionel Stevenson does, to treat this frame voice as no more than a "perfunctory" device. Yet in a poem so fundamentally involved with issues of tale-telling and tale-listening, this view deserves reconsideration. The relative situation of the Mariner's "Rime" is what lyricizes the ballad, making it as much about the feelings the "Rime" develops in its tellers and listeners as about the supernatural character of its events or the moral wisdom of its instruction. Its concluding focus on the Wedding-Guest suggests, furthermore, the frame narrator's muted but overall interest in the relation between "forced" tale-telling and "forced" tale-listening. The Wedding-Guest, now possessed with the "Rime," may have found a motive for narrative similar in power to that which possesses the Mariner with his ordeal. The poem leaves open to question whether this newly haunted listener might himself become a haunted purveyor of the Rime's repetitive life: Will the Wedding-Guest rise the morrow morn, compelled to reach toward an audience of his own, to say in the manner of the ballad's frame narrator, "It is an ancient Mariner, / And he stoppeth one of three"? The ballad's opening word, "It," hears the same sense of perplexed indeterminacy with which the Mariner has left the Wedding-Guest, while the present tense of narration, both here and in the ballad's penultimate stanza ("The Mariner, whose eye is bright, / Whose beard with age is hoar, / Is gone"), suggests the perpetual presence of that figure in the mind that contains his "Rime." The affinity the balladeer's language bears to the psychology of the Mariner's haunted listener is further enhanced by the copresence of their voices in the poem's inaugural stanza, before the actual character of the Wedding-Guest is introduced. The opening two lines flow immediately into a question—"By thy long grey beard and glittering eye, / Now wherefore stopp'st thou me?"—in which the pattern of meter and rhyme and the as-yet-unspecified identity of the questioner momentarily create the sense of a single mind moving from observation to speech.

The self-circling energies of this narrative frame and the would-be containment offered by the poem's interpretive frame (the early Argument or later Gloss) suggest an extended rhetorical figure for the motions of a mind left stunned by the Mariner's "Rime" and attempting to sort out its mystery. Could the interpretive apparatus surrounding what Coleridge thought of as "A Poet's Reverie" be the textual signatures of a previously sense-forlorn auditor trying to make sense by obtruding (for himself and for his own audience) a "principle of action" on the intolerably inconclusive tale that has possessed his imagination? The Latin epigraph that in 1817 takes the place of earlier Arguments and subtitles indeed brings a problematic perspective to bear on the Mariner's mysterious experience. An excerpt from Archaelogiae Philosophicae by the Anglican divine, Thomas Burnet, it offers scholarly speculation on the existence of the invisible and the supernatural in the things of the universe. Yet Burnet cautions that in circling about but never attaining knowledge of the unknown, the mind must be vigilant for truth, careful to distinguish the certain from the uncertain. The action of circling about a center that defies final understanding describes the relation of the Mariner's "Rime" to its enigmatic core of events; it also figures the relation of the Gloss to that "Rime": each text surrounds a mystery, attempting to negotiate moral certainty in the face of what haunts and rouses the imagination. And the comprehensive text of Coleridge's 1817 ballad, equivocating between Marginal Gloss and Mariner's "Rime," now poses that problem to the reader. For the apparatus criticus and the "Rime" together shape a fuller text that, while denying unambiguous principles of instruction, offers an explicit figure for the ultimate uncertainty of interpretation.


In leaving its reader so "struggl[ing] with feelings of strangeness and aukwardness," TheRimeof the Ancient Mariner achieves one of the revolutionary goals of Lyrical Ballads. Deriding the "mere artifices of connection" that characterize the "falsity in the poetic style" of the day, Coleridge points to Wordsworth's contributions to their volume and praises the way such poems reveal compelling "resemblances between that state into which the reader's mind is thrown" by the "confusion of thought front an unaccustomed train of words and images" and "that state which is induced by the...language of empassioned feeling." The reader's "confusion" in the presence of such language is the note on which The Thorn begins, and Wordsworth even supplies an inter-locutor to give voice to the inevitable protests. The ballad opens plainly enough, with an unspecified speaker reporting a simple fact: "There is a thorn." But as in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the world of positive fact ("It is . . .") dissolves rather quickly into the shadows of imagination: this is no mere bush, we find out, but one of a mysteriously charged constellation of objects that has taken possession of the speaker's imagination. He hopes a village tale will supply terms by which he can explain "why" this "spot" should produce such impressive effects out of its simple elements. His initial gesture in this direction is to claim that he "saw" a "woman" at this spot, beside that thorn, crying to herself, "Oh misery! oh misery! / "Oh woe is me! oh misery!"—namely Martha Ray: betrothed, seduced, abandoned in pregnancy on her wedding day, bereaved of her child, and perhaps guilty of infanticide at "the spot." The interpretive appeal of this rural legend for the speaker is that it plots an objective chain of events that culminate in the affective power of "the spot," allowing him to displace his obsession with "the spot" to Martha Ray; he is merely an accidental witness.

But as with the Gloss attached to the Mariner's "Rime," here too the very pressures that introduce the cause-and-effect logic of the tale call into question the validity of the proposed explanation. The speaker's insistence that it was Martha Ray whom he "found," "saw," and "heard" "Ere [he] had heard of Martha's name" may indicate no more than a desperate effort to release his imagination from the grip of a mist-bound panic on a lonely, stormy mountain ridge. Stephen Parrish argues persuasively that the credulous and superstitious speaker may have traced into his account of "the spot" the details of Martha Ray's history after the event of his own witnessing, converting mere objects into intelligible signs of her ordeal. A psychological urgency shades the explanation promised by the tale into language that expresses the reach for explanation by a mind invaded by mystery. The questioner in the speaker's audience may plead, "But what's the thorn? and what's the pond? / "And what's the hill of moss to her?" But that plea, despite its relentless repetition, fails to make the speaker clarify an account suspended uneasily between what he professes to know, or swears is true, and what he "do[es] not know," "cannot think" or "tell."

That the poem dramatizes the motions of interpretation as much as it displays the materials of interpretation constitutes what Geoffrey Hartman has, termed the "double plot" of The Thorn, in which "the action narrated and that of the narrator's mind run parallel." The question for the speaker is "why?": what is the connection between the "tale" and "the spot"? But for the reader, that question is compounded with another, about the agent of that second psychological order of action: "What manner of mind is this?" we may ask. Wordsworth himself takes up this last question in his own version of the Coleridgean Argument and Gloss: the long Note he appends to the poem in the second edition of Lyrical Ballads. Addressed to "Readers who are not accustomed to sympathize with men feeling in that manner or using such language," the Note supplies a sort of second text—that "Introductory Poem" Wordsworth felt he "ought" to have adducced to The Thorn "to give this Poem its full effect." But unlike Coleridge's Gloss, Wordsworth's Note is not concerned with clarifying a principle for the "action narrated"; he means instead to clarify his intent to exhibit what happens to the language of discourse in the absence of such a principle—particularly in the case of a "credulous and talkative" discourser with an imagination "prone to superstition." Wordsworth argues that the speaker's particular "manner," especially his "repetition of words" (a chief complaint among the poem's first readers), is meant to dramatize an effort "to communicate impassioned feelings"—an effort spurred by "something of an accompanying consciousness of the inadequateness of [his] powers, or the deficiencies of language" to do so.

The speaker's frustration of plot and his larger struggle with the language of cause and effect thus become a general struggle with all modes of articulation—except the repetition of verbal fragments "which appear successfully to communicate" a feeling, and "the interest" thereby "which the mind attaches to words, not only as symbols of the passion, but as things, active and efficient, which are of themselves part of the passion." "During such efforts," Wordsworth explains, "there will be a craving in the mind" which, to the extent that it remains "unsatisfied," will cause the speaker to "cling to the same words." Though Coleridge deplored this effect, the circumstances of his own Mariner's narrative suggest a certain amount of sympathy for its motivation. For the implicit repetition of the Mariner's "Rime," and the actual repetitions in The Thorn that play in the voices of both Martha Ray and the ballad's speaker, all describe motions of mind engaged with what is not too explicit: repetition becomes re-petition, re-asking. As such an interrogative attempt, repetition emerges as another version of the questions that provoke the telling of each tale, that "craving in the mind" for a certainty it cannot locate. Indeed, the voice that actually utters questions in The Thorn is itself a repetitive one. This voice never quarrels with the narrator but merely echoes his tentative discourse in interrogative tones. Both the echoing locution of this voice, as well as its indeterminate origin, suggest that Wordsworth may even be shading the poetics of dialogue into monologue, as if to represent a colloquy within one intelligence, between a voice seeking fact and reason ("But why. . .?"), and a write helplessly burdened with mystery ("I do not know"). The play of these voices, like that between Coleridge's "Rime" and his framing apparatus, becomes an extended figure for the mind's engagement with uncertainty. There is a difference, however, for in Wordsworth's poem the two writes we hear are scarcely distinguishable, and neither presumes interpretive authority.


The effort of Wordsworth and Coleridge in these "lyrical ballads" to dramatize the uncertainties of interpretation opens a field of rhetorical activity in English Romanticism in which the play of interpretive strategies emerges as a primary subject—a "principle of action" in itself. Shelley writes an ode the whole point of which seems to be to question whether "the human mind's imaginings" work against a "vacancy" of information in the external world (Mont Blanc); Byron chants playfully: "Apologue, Fable, Poesy, and Parable, / Are false, but may be rendered also true, / By those who sow them in a land that's arable: / 'T is wonderful what Fable will not do! / 'T is said it makes Reality more bearable" (Don Juan XV:89). Keats's Odes are perhaps the consummate Romantic instance of a poetic design in which the primary principle of action is a psychological event—a mind exploring and testing its own fictions of interpretation. But narrative, too, becomes arable land for such testing in a poem such its "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," Keats's version of a lyrical ballad. As in The Thorn and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the central event (the perhaps fatal entanglement of a knight with an enigmatic woman of the meads) emerges only as a troubled memory, the primary action becoming instead the exchange between a perplexed questioner and a would-be tale-teller. The poem opens on an explicitly interrogative note, as a voice arrested by a strange impression queries its cause: "O what can ail thee, knight at arms, / Alone and palely loitering?"

Like the questioners of Wordsworth and Coleridge, Keats's balladeer seeks a reason for a peculiar phenomenon: what explains this unexpected sight on the meads, a knight absent from his wonted world of quest and romance? What sort of tale awaits the telling? The tone of the question reflects its speaker's uncertainty, for it suggests at once a moment of puzzled concern for an ailing countryman and a slightly chiding "what-ails-you?" reproach for the appearance of negligence. The description of the landscape that completes the stanza—"The sedge has wither'd from the lake, / And no birds sing"—extends the mood of inquiry by stressing the incongruity of figure and place. Yet there is a gap between the stanza's questions and its voice of description that raises a question for the reader: are the comments on the landscape a cryptic but potentially meaningful reply to the questioner or a further effort by the questioner to provoke a reply from the knight? That ambiguity, and its mysterious circumstance, persist in the second stanza:

    O what can ail thee, knight at arms,
    So haggard and so woe-begone?
    The squirrel's granary is full,
    And the harvest's done.

This stanza compounds rather than clarifies the indefinite relation between question and statement, an ambiguity to which I shall return. For now it is enough to note that both the landscape that frames the knight and the statements that frame the questions announce a world of depleted vitality, no longer productive of any harvest, even, apparently, the harvest of inquiry: the field is unyielding for all. The principle of inaction seems the profoundest absence of all; indeed, the questioning voice is the singular movement in this otherwise barren circumstance.

The adjectives "haggard" and "woe-begone" (as well as the previous stanza's "Alone" and "loitering") begin to play against this vacancy of information, however, by hinting at anterior events: "woe-begone" and "Alone" suggest diagnoses of an ailment for which "loitering" may be a symptom, while the etymology of "haggard," along with what Keats might describe as "its original and modern meaning combined and woven together, with all its shades of signification," suggests an intuition of cause. The modern meaning of "drawn, gaunt, exhausted" is enhanced by the status of "haggard" as an adjective derived from "hag," implying prior bewitchment. The word points even more specifically to the effects of commerce with a "haggard": "a wild or intractable female," and—with special relevance to Keats's La Belle Dame—with a "'wild' expression of the eyes." May the knight's present "haggard" appearance be the effect of a contagious encounter with some haggard's "wild wild eyes"? The latent efforts at interpretation stirring in these adjectives emerge in the overtly symbolic imagery that follows:

    I see a lily on thy brow
    With anguish moist and fever dew,
    And on thy cheeks a fading rose
    Fast withereth too.

As Earl Wasserman remarks, this stanza invites a "symbolic reading": the lily is the harbinger of death (Keats in fact wrote "death's lilly" in an earlier draft); the "fading rose" (also originally "death's fading rose") cannily surmises the fatal fading of romance, while the repetition of the verb "wither" in reference to the knight's appearance can now suggest an affinity between him and a heretofore incongruous circumstance. The elaboration of detail has begun to resonate with an obscure significance which promises a logical connection: the imagery of the whole reports a hollow center whose very vacancy has become significant. Everything speaks of absences, withdrawals, depletions, and abandonments.

The questioner has in effect entered the realm of latent narrative, for with the cue of this "symbolic reading," the knight produces a tale whose information confirms all these intuitions and imaginative surmises. Nonetheless, its sequence of events—far from elucidating the original mystery—only deepens its range, for here too details elude definite organization. Wasserman's study of the poem is particularly alert to "the dim sense of mystery and incompleteness" Keats's artistry arouses in us, along with the way certain "overtones" in the "affective and image-making energies of the poem" "drive the mind to ask questions of conceptual intent. What, one wonders, is the larger meaning couched in the absence of song? why a knight-at-arms and an elfin grot? and what are the significances of the cold hill side and the pale warriors?" Like the Marginal Editor of the Mariner's "Rime," Wasserman means to "penetrate [this] mystery", and he thinks he has the answer: La Belle Dame "is the ideal" that entices mortal man "towards heaven's bourne," but which must elude permanent possession in this world. Other readers surmise different causes and propose "Circe" as a more accurate key to interpretation.

Yet the knight's tale yields no certain logic either way, for like his questioner, he too is in struggle with indeterminate appearances. "She look'd at me as she did love," he reports, with a syntax that hovers between a confidently durational sense of "as" as "while" and that of less confident conjecture, "as if." His subsequent assertion, "And sure in language strange she said—/ I love thee true," bears no more certainty than the Mariner's hopefully proffered "Sure my kind saint took pity on me." In both cases the claim only accentuates the gap between the strangeness of signs and their proposed translations. La Belle Dame escapes logical explication even in retrospect—as the syntax of the knight's tale everywhere demonstrates: his narration merely accretes from "and" to "and"—a word sounded in fact in every stanza of the ballad, more than two dozen times throughout. As in The Thorn, the final stanza comes to rest on the original mystery, its terms now intensified by the intervening narrative:

    And this is why I sojourn here,
    Alone and palely loitering,
    Though the sedge is wither'd from the lake,
    And no birds sing.

Despite the withering of lush romance into a death-pale aftermath, the cause remains unknown. The knight's summation simply echoes on a syntactic level the absences noted by the questioner. Though he frames an answer in the syntax of explanation ("And this is why. . ."), it is an answer that doesn't produce much, beyond halting present tenses left wandering between two worlds, one dead and one powerless to be re born. Lacking a clear antecedent, its "this" belies the stress by voice and meter: there is, finally, no "why" to solve the mystery of La Belle Dame or to dispel its lingering effects. Indeed, the knight's final, haunting repetition of his questioner's voice only magnifies the interrogative mood of the whole, whose irresolution now involves the reader too.

We should not ascribe that questioning voice simply to ballad convention, however, even if it does perform the conventional service of prompting a tale. For the very presence of this questioner on the meads is itself questionable. As in The Thorn, the status of the poem's conversation remains ambiguous enough to suggest two voices playing in one intelligence, instead of two dramatically distinct speakers. We note, for instance, a curiously shared attraction to the landscape of barren meads, as well as a shared song—the knight reports being spellbound by "La Belle Dame sans Merci," and the balladeer repeats the spell of that language strange in the title of his own song. Keats enhances these provocative affinities by keeping the identity of the questioner anonymous (more a voice than a character) and by withholding any punctuation that might distinguish two separate speakers. There is a quality to the place and play of these voices, in other words, that implies the self-questioning motions of a divided consciousness examining its forlorn state. Even the knight's summary statement, "And I awoke and found me here," points to self-division and the need to heal it, with the location of "here" suspended between a situation in the landscape and a situation in the mind. Like The Thorn, Keats's lyrical ballad allows a reading of its voices as a dialogue of the mind with itself; by the end of the poem, the question that drew our attention to the knight has been utterly absorbed into his own voice. The status of the ballad's dialogue must of course remain part of its mystery—neither clearly an internal colloquy nor a conversation between distinct dramatis personae. But the ambiguity is suggestive, for it points toward the rhetorical play of the odes, which, as many readers remark, is one of internal dialogue and debate.


If "La Belle Dame sans Merci" foregrounds a probing question and a perplexed reply against a set of events that haunt about the shape of present speech, "Ode on a Grecian Urn" heightens that drama of interpretation. Instead of a narrative organization of tale, tale-teller, and listener (or reader), Keats concentrates the action of the poem on the motions of a single lyric intelligence engaged with an image: a tableau on an urn, which like "the spot" in The Thorn or the appearance of the knight on the meads seems to signify something beyond itself, but for which there is no "legend" forthcoming, problematic or not. Keats's field of action is that of a poet's mind beckoned to interpretation, and the drama he presents concerns the increasingly self-conscious attempts of that mind to describe the significance of the object before it.

Like "La Belle Dame," the Ode begins with a greeting that suggests there is a story to be told, a meaning to be expressed:

    Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness,
    Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
    Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
    A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme.

All the vocatives—an "unravish'd bride," a "foster-child," a silent tale-teller—suggest an unfinished circumstance—or from a rhetorical point of view, information on the verge of expression. Keats brilliantly exploits that implication by following these invocations with a series of questions, the syntactic equivalent of these figures of provocative incompletion:

    What leaf-fring'd legend haunts about thy shape
    Of deities or mortals, or of both,
    In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
    What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
    What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
    What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

If the speaker surmises the urn as a silent Grecian "historian," the questioning of his "rhyme" provides a particularly cooperative voice, for historia is the Grecian method of learning by inquiry. Yet the attempt to double the historians on this occasion produces an ironic counterplay in the language of poetic inquiry. Far from recovering the mysterious legend presumably harbored by this "Sylvan historian," the speaker's rhyme doubles back on itself to mirror his own perplexities: he barely launches his greeting before it branches into multiple "or"s, a kind of "wild ecstasy" of syntax that diagrams his "mad pursuit" of his own "maiden loth"—the unravished "what" that might supply the absent meaning of the images he riddles. As Keats's speaker pursues the significance of his object, Keats's rhyme mirrors the course of that pursuit.

Keats's Ode continues to elaborate this double plot, presenting a speaker in pursuit of interpretation in rhyme that expresses, primarily, the ardor of the pursuer. If, however, Keats's readers are inclined to exempt themselves from this mirror-play, they have unwittingly played into an even more subtle irony. For over the course of the Ode, Keats turns the behavior of his rhyme into a dilemma for the reader, fully analogous to the speaker's dilemma of interpretation before the urn. By the conclusion of the Ode, in fact, the reader may have the uneasy feeling that not only have these dilemmas converged, they may even have reversed, for Keats's speaker abandons us with an ambiguously toned "that is all" just before becoming as silent as the urn itself.

The dovetailing of the two dilemmas of interpretation—the speaker's of the urn and the reader's of the rhyme—begins as soon as the speaker stops questioning to muse on the freedom of the urn from any finite significance. If no "legend" can be read into the silent tableau, it may be because "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter." With this new premise, the absent "legend" finds a productive counterpart in "unheard" melodies, those "ditties of no tone" played "Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd . . . to the spirit." The language of Keats's poetry intensifies that paradox with a play of visual repetitions and half-heard echoes. The word "ear," for instance, reemerges enfolded in "endear'd," as if that repetition were both a visual and auditory figure for the inner audience to which it refers. Furthermore, the sound (as well as the spelling) of "endear'd" resonates as "end ear'd," as if to signify audience beyond the bourn of "the sensual ear"— "just below the threshold of normal sound," as Cleanth Brooks puts it. The slant and sight rhyme of "endear'd" with "unheard" adds a further elaborationtothevisualandauditorydesignofrhyme. As readers, we begin to attend to information that haunts about the shape of rhyme, as well as the information it expresses through the logic of paradox. Language itself becomes a provocative figure of interpretation.

Yet that very elaboration of linguistic surface further perplexes these "ditties of no tone," for the speaker has a tone, or rather tones, that correspond ambivalently to the absences he notes:

    Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
    Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
    Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
    Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
    She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
    For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Any effort to evaluate the syntax of these judgments is thoroughly involved with the speaker's own perplexity before the arrested figures he contemplates. On the one hand, "Fair youth" and "Bold lover" present ideal images of mortals whose special stasis insulates them from the normal attritions of human passion and the vagaries of human inspiration; "the negation of these verbs," Earl Wasserman insists, "creates an infinity of mutable or chronological time." But the dependency of surmise on such negatives may be decreative as well, for the tone of the whole is poised between emphatic celebration and rueful irony: "do not grieve; / She cannot fade." The initially bold assurance of "therefore, ye soft pipes, play on" succumbs to the wavering balance of "Though . . . yet . . . though," while the expansive potential of figures seemingly poised on the verge of action yields figures trapped in an eternity of postponements.

The third stanza heightens these tensions of interpretation, both for the speaker and for us, not with syntactic equivocation this time, but with a univocal insistence on gradations of happiness, where the very repetition of positive value exposes the urgency with which it is being declared:

    Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
    Your leaves, nor ever bid the spring adieu;
    And, happy melodist, unwearied,
    For ever piping songs for ever new;
    More happy love! more happy, happy love!
    For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd . . .

Like the repetitions of Wordsworth's Sea Captain in The Thorn, here too "words" verge on becoming mere "things" of passionate speech, rather than "symbols:" They render a linguistic event that like the branching syntax of stanza 1 or the seesawing sentences of stanza 2 aligns the reader of Keats's "rhyme" ever more sharply with the interpretive dilemma of the beholder before the urn.

This third stanza concludes with a particularly intense convergence of situation and syntax that invariably trips Keats's readers:

    For ever panting, and for ever young;
    All breathing human passion far above,
    That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd,
    A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

On a first reading, "All breathing human passion far above" seems to be a summary phrase for the state of "More happy love! ...For ever panting, and for ever young": the semicolon after "young" perhaps marks a pause analogous to a comma, like the semicolons after "adieu" and "new" in the same stanza, while, conversely, the comma after "above" temporarily halts our reading in this field of happy surmise. Moreover, the stanza's syntax encourages us to feel that there is no problem in reading "breathing" as a continuation of those activities that the speaker has also described in present participles, "piping" and "panting"—activities that in fact involve kinds of "breathing." Wasserman puts the case this way: the line "is the syntactical analogue" of a visionary ideal where "breathing human passion" exists in a state "far above," fusing "mortal and immortal, the temporal and the atemporal." We may even be inclined to read "All" as an inclusive noun for the melodist and the lovers, and "breathing" as a verb whose direct object is "human passion."

The comma keeps us reading, however, and as we do, we reject this last syntactic possibility. More important, we find that "far above" is not a place but a value judgment that separates "All breathing human passion" from the conditions of the "happy love" we have been imagining. The value of "breathing" does perplex that judgment with information that will emerge more fully in stanza 5's "Cold Pastoral!"—an obverse evaluation of the same condition. But at this point, "breathing" is realigned only with the "sorrowful" conditions of the immediately ensuing participles, "burning" and "parching," its situation distilled utterly from the possibility of mystical convergence with "for ever panting and for ever young."

What is striking about this line, and the stanza as a whole, is the "phenomenology of reading" it produces. The teetering syntax of "All breathing human passion far above"—first promoting, then subverting, a coordination between the "happy love" on the urn and the highest promise of "human passion"—becomes significant not only for what it would describe, but for the way it behaves. Just as the urn's art resists decisive interpretation, so that one line entangles nearly every reader who has studied Keats's Ode. The question of narrative legend ("What men or gods are these?") moves, in this stanza, into a question of grammar and syntax: "What nouns or verbs are these?" Ambiguity is now the common property of urn and rhyme, and the dilemma of interpretation, the common situation of Keats's speaker and Keats's reader.

The return of questions in stanza 4 can be only an ironic event after these doublings of dubious surmise. They seem deliberately calculated to demonstrate the futility of certain interpretation:

    Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
    To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
    Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
    And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?

This object of address is not the potentially intelligent "Sylvan historian" of stanza 1 but a "mysterious priest," whose knowledge (like his identity) is beyond possible knowing. Nor is there any possibility of discerning a historical context for this "sacrifice": origin and termination can be a matter of surmise only:

    What little town by river or sea shore,
    Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
    Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?

The question of "what little town" echoes the earlier inquiry for "what leaf-fring'd legend," but here the configuration of "or"s concerns one of those "Nothings" that have existence only in the "ardent pursuit" of imagination. The circumstance is without a representation and, significantly, without a voice:

    And, little town, thy streets for evermore
    Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
    Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.

The connective "And" hardly breaks the flow of the question, for it produces a response that extends interrogative motion into an undoing of its very premises. In stanza 1, the urn as a "bride of quietness" or a "foster-child of silence" suggested a haunting indeterminacy, while the paradox of "unheard melodies" made that "silence" an elusive spiritual extension of sound. Stanza 4 reduces that potential to mere emptiness. Like the landscape in "La Belle Dame" where "no birds sing," here, too, is a tableau of absence: there is finally no "historian," "not a soul to tell/Why," and the voice of bold inquiry, eager to ravish the urn for its "what" and "why," finds itself ironically partnered to her silence. The final stanza completes this movement: all questions are absorbed by the object that had excited them, and the urn relapses to a mere "Attic shape"— the "attitude" of "silent form" that signals the silencing of inquiry.

Yet even as Keats's speaker appears to concede this consequence, Keats's rhyme redeems language by exploiting its multiplicity of interpretive signals. For the profusion of puns and shades of signification that play through the ode's final stanza at once speak of and enact the indeterminacy the ode has dramatized throughout. If the urn's art withholds its spectral legend, flattening illusory possibility to a merely opaque "Fair attitude! with brede / Of marble men and maidens overwrought," Keats takes advantage of the "heard melodies" of poetry to multiply the dimensions of its activity. "Brede," for instance, describes the quality of the urn's figured design, but its punning against "breed" and ironic half-echoes of "bride" and "breathe" subtly reject the "human passion" the speaker had projected onto the urn's fair attitudes. Indeed, "Fair attitude" refers both to the loveliness of the urn's art and to the fairness, or justice, of its silent seeming. "Overwrought" involves similar shadings, for while it refers to the lapidary quality of the urn's design, it also criticizes an eternity where one may never, never kiss. And as a pun on over-"raught" (an archaic or Spenserian version of "reached"), it gently mocks the speaker's previous overreaching to idealize the urn's tableau, as well as implicates his view of the overwrought figures before him with his own overwrought postures of interpretation—that voice given to chanting, "Ah, happy, happy boughs! . . . More happy love! more happy, happy love!" "I found my Brain so overwrought that I had neither Rhyme nor reason in it—so was obliged to give up," Keats reports of one mood of composition in the midst of Endymion.

The transition from the "overwrought" brain to "giving up" is in fact the consequence Keats's final stanza enacts. The resistance of both urn and rhyme to any single pattern of significance is again underscored with the utterance, "Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought / As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!" "Cold Pastoral!" is, of course, the speaker's decisive revision of his previous surmise, "For ever warm": the epithet coolly extinguishes the ardor of that pursuit. More important, however, is the way this phrase not only juxtaposes the beholder's conflicting responses ("Cold" marble, "Pastoral" illusion), but translates that perplexity of signification into a compelling linguistic figure. "Cold Pastoral!" is no reconciliation but rather a tensed collation of opposites: a dynamic, because, unresolvable, oxymoron. The disjunctive effect of reading Coleridge's Marginal Gloss against his Mariner's "Rime" is something Keats's "Cold Pastoral" concentrates into a single phrase. It is Coleridge in fact who provides the most cogent Romantic argument for the imaginative value of oxymorons. To defend Shakespeare's attraction to the figure, he urges allowance for the way oxymoron reveals and perpetuates that

effort of the mind, when it would describe what it cannot satisfy itself with the description of, to reconcile opposites and qualify contradictions, leaving a middle state of mind more strictly appropriate to the imagination than any other, when it is, as it were, hovering between images. As soon as it is fixed on one image, it becomes understanding; but while it is unfixed and wavering between them, attaching itself permanently to none, it is imagination...a strong working of the mind, still offering what is still repelled, and again creating what is again rejected.

Not only is this a provocative countertext to Coleridge's favored poetics of reconciliation, but it is the best reading of "Cold Pastoral" ever not written about the phrase, for it speaks to the way the voice of judgment Keats produces in stanza 5 keeps the mind of the reader working hard in a dialectic of constructions and deconstructions. However teasingly silent this "Sylvan historian" remains about its informing "legend," it becomes, through the very provocation of its silence, the historian of urn-readers and urn-reading, a historian of the speaker's activity and our own. The urn befriends its beholders the way Keats's rhyme does—by encouraging their imaginative activity. We come to value its artistry not so much by what it yields to thought as by what it does to thoughtvprovoking questions and refusing to confirm any sure points and resting places for our reasonings.

The voice of the urn, were one to imagine it, is a perfect contrast to the voice that declares "Cold Pastoral!": "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" is such a piece of self-enclosed harmony that it merits separation by quotation marks from the rest of the rhyme. Its status is another matter, however. "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" emerges in part as the final, desperate surmise of a beholder not happy with an absent legend, nor with being so teased out of thought, and determined to tease the silent form into oracular utterance. And oracular utterance it seems—a rich, cryptic piece of sententiae antiquae. Yet despite the grace of its neatly balanced syntax, its language proves for some a cold comfort; for the ambiguous situation of this voice compromises its high philosophical tone, bringing a special kind of "woe" to "generations" of readers expecting something more accessible to interpretation. The phrase all but requires another "legend" to help us know what it means. Indeed, the words "Beauty" and "truth" seem so inscrutable as an abstract and brief chronicle of the urn's art that they sound its "ditties of no tone" with a vengeance. As with the marble brede of figures on the urn's surface, one may project whatever significance onto the aphorism one wishes: but as with those figures, this phrase contracts to mere opacity if its mystery is too irritably teased.

The statement "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" is a lofty answer that in effect plays ironically against the rhetoric of answering, for it simultaneously invites and repels the possibility of understanding, shaping a piece of "charactered language" that is partly like the "hieroglyphics" Keats celebrates in Kean's "music of elocution" and partly like the "{hie}ragueglyphics in Moor's almanack." The two poles of meaning, "Beauty" and "truth," slide across their marker of equivalence, "is," reverse positions at the comma, and so elude syntactic priority that, despite the elegant symmetry of statement, its logic can only be wondered at, like the urn itself. Urn and aphorism together go round and round, each serenely self-enclosed, endlessly circular, resonating with mysterious promise, but "still unravish'd" at last.

The only consequence is a further mockery of the questioner: "—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." This statement, too, has the sound of stable wisdom, but the more one teases it, the more one discovers a tone that unsettles its terms of resolution. That "all" hints at sufficiency, even at mysterious plenitude, and yet it has a ring of dismissal, as if parodying anyone's effort to "know" "all." The irony against interpretation is as wry as Robert Frost's couplet: "We dance round in a ring and suppose, / But the Secret sits in the middle and knows." For Keats, however, there may be no "Secret"—only the effect of those dancing round and supposing. Whether the speaker imagines "that is all" as the urn's comment on its aphorism, or himself tells us this, the opacity of the pronoun "that" and the uncertain tone of the whole still leave us wanting to know "what is all?" Keats takes us only this far, then to relinquish us to an utterance that, like the contemplation of eternity, absorbs inquiry into silent thought. Here, a negotiation with "uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts" is not merely an act of mind we observe in another (be it Mariner, Marginal Editor, Sea Captain, knight, or poet), but one that the play of Keats's language has produced and sustained in the reader's own experience.

Source: Susan J. Wolfson, "The Language of Interpretation in Romantic Poetry: 'A Strong Working of the Mind,"' in Romanticism and Language, edited by Arden Reed, Cornell University Press, 1984, pp. 22-49.


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This collection of critical essays on Romanticism discusses poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and sociopolitical influences on the movement.

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Helsinger examines the intimate relationship between art and poetry in the work of two Pre-Raphaelites who practiced both forms of expression.

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This collection of essays is a critical examination of the romantics and their time.

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This collection of critical essays brings together a wide variety of scholars with varying interpretations of romantic literature.

Shaffer, Julie, "Non-Canonical Women's Novels of the Romantic Era: Romantic Ideologies and the Problematics of Gender and Genre," in Studies in the Novel, Winter 1996, pp. 469-492.

Shaffer examines little-known romantic novels by women and discusses their role in changing society's view of women.


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the enlightenment/romanticism dichotomy
the romantic mind and the emotional self
nature mysticism
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"political romanticism"
resisting definition

Coming on the heels of the French Revolution and the enormous political turmoil that event entailed, the European Romantic movement of the first half of the nineteenth century was in many ways a reaction against the methods and ideals of the preceding eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Whereas the Anglo-French Enlightenment displayed considerable coherence and consistency in its basic ideas, however, Romanticism often appears a loose collection of diffuse characteristics, if not a mass of contradictions. The movement had no institutional locus, or organizational identity, or central publishing project. It was "Romantic" to exalt individual subjectivity but also to champion le peuple and the Volk. It was "Romantic" both to reject neoclassical formalism and to hark back nostalgically to Greco-Roman art and mythology. Romantics embraced the abstract and the infinite as well as the particular and the singular. What the thinkers and artists of the Europe-wide Romantic era did share was a rejection of the Enlightenment's secular, skeptical rationalism. The early Romantic German composer Franz Schubert (1797–1828) thus begged "imagination" to free him from the scourge of the preceding "Age of Reason," that "empty skeleton without flesh or blood." A survey of Romantic ideas reveals a shared emphasis on a desire for mystery, intensity, and profundity, reinforced by a fascination with individual subjectivity in all its forms. Ironically, this feature was itself derived at least in part from the individualism of the Enlightenment ideal of free and independent intellectual inquiry.

Chronologically, the French philosophe Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) predates Romanticism. (The movement is generally agreed to range from the 1780s to the 1840s, although its manifestations in the fields of music and architecture extended well into the late nineteenth century.) Yet Rousseau's valorizing of the psychological Self—"I may not be better, but at least I am different," the "pre-Romantic" author wrote in the opening paragraph of his autobiographical Confessions (1782)—his communion with the world of nature, his defense of the "common man," and his rejection of the pretentious city life of his fellow philosophes all announced the birth of a new model of thought and apprehension. Romantics spoke of the Self and its creative resources in powerful, at times ecstatic, terms. Whereas Enlightenment thought tended to emphasize the physical and intellectual mastery of the natural world, Romantic garden and landscape designs brought out nature's wildness, beauty, and inspirational qualities. Whereas the mid-eighteenth-century French thinker Denis Diderot (1713–1784) defined love as "the rubbing together of two membranes," Romantics sought the mystery and magic of sexuality in an extensive "cult of love."

the enlightenment/romanticism dichotomy

No generational dialectic in cultural history is more fundamental than the Enlightenment/Romanticism dichotomy. The historic divide pits head against heart. If in his influential Discourse on Method (1637) the philosopher-geometrician René Descartes (1596–1650) had famously quipped "I think therefore I am," thereby centering rational cognition as the quintessential human faculty, the Romantic retort might well have been "I feel therefore I am." Romantics preferred to imagine and emote rather than to analyze and quantify. Whether the Enlightenment was really as sterile and hyperrationalistic as some Romantics claimed, or this vision was a self-serving ideological construction against which a subsequent generation defined itself, remains an open question. Whatever its nature, the "Romantic rebellion against reason" was perhaps the most salient characteristic of the movement, one of the few features shared by nearly all its followers. Romantics were intrigued by mental and emotional states that transcended the orbit of reason—dreams, horror, fantasy, the passions, madness, death—or what the Swiss painter Henry Fuseli (1741–1825) called "the dark side of life." Scholars debate whether Romantic antirationality represented an actual rejection of reason per se or rather a plea to explore a wider spectrum of emotional experience. Present-day psychologists have gone so far as to contend that the Enlightenment and Romantic styles of sensibility map onto two fundamentally different personality types. But, for all its familiarity and convenience, this division was not absolute and can be overstated, especially in the German-speaking cultural world: in their lives and work, titans like Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) in metaphysics, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) in music, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) in letters traversed both periods and simultaneously display "Romantic" and "Classical" traits.

In keeping with this dialectic, the Romantic period witnessed the early formation of the so-called two cultures. After cohabitating comfortably in antiquity, the Renaissance, and the eighteenth century, art and science began to go their separate ways in the Romantic era. With its exaggerated intellectual claims and its drive to mathematize all human knowledge, science, British literary Romantics claimed, represented a set of methods, activities, and ideologies antagonistic to art. Thus William Wordsworth's charge that the meddling scientific intellect "Misshapens the beauteous forms of things / We murder to dissect;" William Blake's drawing of a godlike Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727) methodically reducing the cosmos to geometry; and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's assertion that "Poetry is not the proper antithesis to prose, but to science." Yet on this point, too, there were exceptions: Johann Wolfgang Goethe, who created the weepy, proto-Romantic protagonist Werther in the mid-1770s, later published entire treatises on plants and optics informed by the best science of his day. To similar effect, the gifted, young British poet John Keats (1795–1821) was trained medically, and the French Romantic novelist Victor Hugo (1802–1885) hailed science as progressive.

the romantic mind and the emotional self

As these examples imply, the "Romantic mind" is perhaps best manifested in the artistic works of the period; these are astonishingly rich and varied. In contrast to the formalistic neoclassical spirit with its academically mandated methods and standards, Romantic art brims with free-flowing, emotive motifs. Thus, the brilliant landscapes and seascapes by painters as diverse as England's J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851), France's Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), and Germany's Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840); the melodic and instrumental extravagances of Richard Wagner's operas; and the nature-based emphasis on intimate affective experience in the poetry of Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats, and Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822). The search for idioms of art that enhanced emotional expression generated entire new forms of music and poetry. The most original and affecting examples of these experiments in form occurred in symphonic and instrumental music: the rhapsody, nocturne, fantasy, prelude, impromptu, ballad, intermezzo, and tone poem were all compositional genres for orchestra or keyboard pioneered by Romantic composers such as Johannes Brahms (1833–1897), Franz Schubert (1797–1828), Robert Schumann (1810–1856), Frédéric Chopin (1810–1849), and Franz Liszt (1811–1886). Romantic songs for solo voice deploy a greater range of tones and harmonies than ever before in music history. In the world of painting, color and light rather than line and form, the eighteenth-century preoccupations, became all important. And in literature, Romantic aesthetic ideology deemed poetry to have greater expressive appeal than the "rationalistic" prose of the age of Alexander Pope (1688–1744) and Samuel Johnson (1709–1784). The ode became the Romantic literary form par excellence. Emotion, in the Romantic ideal, should be captured by the poet, composer, and painter; but it was also to be experienced by the reader, listener, or viewer.

Along these same lines, the exploration of the emotional Self became a Romantic preoccupation. Literary "ego-documents"—autobiographies, memoirs, confessions, autobiographical novels, compilations of letters—cascaded from the European press during the Romantic decades. Fictional writings betray a sharp increase in the use of the first-person "I." The Romantic cult of the Self extended to the visual arts, too: the portrait as a genre of painting flourished under Romanticism, with a subject's individuality mattering more than their social standing or occupational identity. The Enlightenment, including its most important political documents, had spoken grandly and abstractly of "Man"; Homo Romanticus was above all a singular individual.

Of all the emotional states the Romantics lavished their attention on, two emerged as recurrent themes: melancholy and love. In France, the literary productions of François-René Chateaubriand (1768–1848), Alfred Musset (1810–1857), and Alfred de Vigny (1797–1863) feature tearful and introspective protagonists, typically males, who suffer from a vague disenchantment with life and the world. This was the style of the French mal du siècle, which presages mid-twentieth-century existentialism. Weltschmerz, or "world pain," the German literary counterpart, tracked back to Goethe's tragic lovesick hero Werther of the 1770s. This gloomy side of Romanticism reached its highest philosophical expression in Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), the anti-idealist "philosopher of pessimism" whose monumental World as Will and Representation appeared in 1819.

Not surprisingly, in light of the movement's name, love was a second cherished Romantic affliction. La grande passion, as they called it. But whereas the Enlightenment construed love primarily as fleeting sexual titillation—not coincidentally, pornography as a genre originates in eighteenth-century France—Romantic-era writers probed the countless permutations of love: Platonic love, unrequited love, love between friends, love between siblings, doomed love, the love of god. For them, love was not only an extraordinary, enigmatic force but also an artistic inspiration. Prominent romantic liaisons among artists—John Keats and Fanny Brawne, Chopin and George Sand (Amandine Dudevant; 1804–1876)—characterize the period. Published love letters proliferated, and Schubert and Schumann elevated the love song arguably to its highest musical level. Here the generic and historical meanings of the word romantic (lower case) and Romantic (upper case) merge.

At the same time, Romanticism was not an ideology of feminism. The Romantic idealization of women excluded a vision of political and legal equality for the female half of the population. As scholars have shown, the best-known Romantic artists, overwhelmingly male, sought to embrace what they perceived to be the specifically feminine modalities of intuition and sensibility in their search for heightened creative capacities. Yet artistic and intellectual genius remained wholly masculine, in their view. Romanticism was gendered male, but as a newly feminized version of masculinity. Furthermore, the creative roles played by women in certain male Romantic careers—for instance, the personal and artistic interplay between William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy (1771–1855) and between Robert Schumann and his wife, Clara (1819–1896)—were often striking. Mary Shelley's (1797–1851) ever-popular novel Frankenstein (1818) is a protofeminist Romantic critique of modern science's destructive pretensions to self-sufficient masculine creativity. The movement's most substantial challenge to the traditional norms of gender identity was probably its fascination with the intermixture of masculine and feminine elements in history, culture, and biography—"Romantic androgyny," as one scholar has called it.

nature mysticism

Another feature of Romanticism was nature mysticism. The Enlightenment world had been centered in the cities; it was nothing if not cosmopolitan, and its most characteristic organization had been the group salon. In contrast, self-styled Romantics preferred the country to the city. This was the age of the rural walking tour. Emblematically, Rousseau, in a much-discussed episode, abandoned Paris, the epicenter of the Enlightenment with its overcivilized salonnières, and retreated to an island in Lake Geneva. There he undertook his "reveries of a solitary walker." In Britain, the literary return to nature is best exemplified by Wordsworth, who in 1799 settled at Grasmere in the Lake District of the northwest of England. He and his fellow Romantics Coleridge and Robert Southey (1774–1843), who lived nearby, became known as the Lake Poets. From Dove Cottage, Grasmere, Wordsworth took long daily walks through the lovely, rolling countryside, poetizing upon returning home. (The poet's Guide to the Lakes of 1810 chronicles his countless outings.) This immersion in the natural world, Romantics insisted, was not just for its beauty; nature also served as a direct source of spiritual solace and artistic inspiration. The American counterpart of course is Henry David Thoreau's (1817–1862) extended experiment of living at Walden Pond, which in 1854 occasioned the most important Romantic prose work from the New World.

Appropriately, the Romantic exaltation of nature reached it highest expression in landscape painting. John Constable (1776–1837) and J. M. W. Turner, both Britons, depicted the natural world in two different moods: in canvases like The Hay Wain of 1821, Constable captured soothing, arcadian scenes of the English summertime, with its cottony cumulus clouds puffing across a rustic landscape. Turner's oeuvre was a good deal less tranquil. The most prolific of the Romantic painters and Britain's finest painter ever, Turner was powerfully drawn to "the Romantic sublime." In his famous sunsets, sea squalls, snowstorms, and shipwreck scenes, nature appears at its most awesome and destructive. Turner's and Constable's German contemporary was Caspar David Friedrich, whose empty, expansive landscapes at dusk and in the snow are often populated by only a solitary tree or person. They are highly evocative images. For these artists, the neoclassical paintings of the previous 150 years, with their idealized forms and moralizing messages, ceased to appeal.

romantic medievalism

The Romantic turning away from neoclassicism also ushered in a renewed interest in the European medieval period (which had been cast contemptuously by eighteenth-century intellectuals as "the Dark Ages"). In the field of architecture, a spirited "Gothic Revival" characterized the day. Remarkably, architects in the Romantic era applied a late medieval Christian/Catholic building style of tall spires, ribbed vaults, pointed arches, and decorative tracery to notably secular monuments in largely Protestant countries. Charles Barry's (1795–1860) and Augustus Welby Pugin's (1812–1852) Houses of Parliament, built along the River Thames in London during the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s, is the best known example; the Oxford Museum (1851) and Manchester Town Hall (1877) are equally fine expressions. In France, an ambitious program to record, recover, and restore the nation's medieval heritage, foremostly Notre Dame Cathedral in central Paris, was supervised by Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814–1879). Later in the century, the "mad" King Louis II of Bavaria (r. 1864–1886) had royal architects construct the spectacularly sited, fairytale castle Neuschwanstein (1869–1886) deep in the Bavarian Alps. Romantic neo-gothic style eventually reached rather kitsch proportions. In Britain, wealthy and eccentric landowners built pseudo-gothic "ruins" on their property, and extravagant private estates like Strawberry Hill, where the politician Sir Robert Walpole lived, and Fonthill Abbey were anything but livable. Neuschwanstein became the model for the original Disneyland castle in the United States.

New interest in the Middle Ages was not limited to architecture. Wordsworth chose the remains of Tintern Abbey, a twelfth-century Cisterian church in Wales, as the subject of his most famous poem. Neo-gothic elements also crop up time and again in such hugely popular literary works as Walter Scott's Waverly (1814) and Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831). The "gothic novel" emerged. The medieval legend of Faust in particular inspired not only Goethe's poetic masterpiece by that name (1832) but a symphony by Hector Berlioz (1803–1869), a tone poem by Liszt, and an opera by Gounod. In this same cultural atmosphere, medieval historical scholarship flourished, and the first accurate translations into English, French, and German of the great late medieval Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) appeared.

spirituality and religious experience

Romantic medievalism points to a further feature of the movement: the return to spirituality and religious experience. Many Europeans who had left the church during the materialistic and anticlerical Enlightenment returned in the post-Revolutionary period. Voltaire's (François-Marie Arouet; 1694–1778) cultural standing declined. Nonetheless, the eighteenth-century scorn for religious dogma and church hierarchies by and large remained intact throughout the early decades of the 1800s. What typically interested Romantic Christian worshipers was the emotional and spiritual core of religious experience, including a direct relationship with the divine. Early in the new century, the German Protestant theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) introduced a highly subjective "Theology of Feeling" that emphasized the presence of god within each one of us. More personalized, interiorized versions of religious experience came to the fore, including eccentric, individualized faiths like the English poet William Blake's prophetic, symbolic mythology. In figures such as the early German Romantic philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder (and, for that matter, the American Ralph Waldo Emerson), philosophical pantheism integrated the worship of nature and the new religiosity; for them, physical nature itself incarnated a divine life-force. In France, a spirited Catholic Revival, abetted by Napoleon Bonaparte's Papal Concordat of 1801, marked the post-Revolutionary period and finds its most massive illustration in Chateaubriand's multivolume Genius of Christianity (1802)—"The Bible of Romanticism," as it has been called. But, once again, there are exceptions in this age of individualism: Schopenhauer's philosophy was overtly atheistic, and Shelley's no-holds-barred "The Necessity of Atheism" (1811) got the poet expelled from Oxford.

In Germanic central Europe, the Romantic spiritualist impulse even found its way into the new philosophy of the age. The metaphysician Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's concepts of a "World-Spirit" and "the Absolute" potentially offered a version of God that was active in the very unfolding of history—or rather, "History"—in marked contrast to the distant and unknowable entity favored by Enlightenment deism. Hegel's concept of the "world-historical" event and hero, presented in his influential Lectures on the Philosophy of History of the 1820s, was part of a Romantic fascination with and reverence for historical geniuses. These larger-than-life figures were alternately political/military (Hannibal, Caesar, Napoleon) and cultural/artistic (Leonardo, Beethoven, Wagner, Hegel himself). The musical virtuoso, along the lines of the Hungarian pianist Liszt and the Italian violinist Niccolò Paganini (1782–1840), attracted swooning crowds who envisioned the performers as demigods. Hegel's contemporary in German philosophy Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (1775–1854) produced a theory that glorified the process of artistic creation itself.

"political romanticism"

No dimension of Romanticism proves more difficult to determine than the political. Scholars have spoken of a "Romanticism of the left" and a "Romanticism of the right." Shelley rhapsodized in "Ode to Liberty" (1820). In 1823–1824, the British poet George Gordon Byron (1788–1824) perished famously in Greece during the War for Independence against the Ottoman Turks (although the cause of his death was unrelated to the war). And Delacroix's painting Liberty Leading the People (1830) and François Rude's sculpture relief Departure of the Volunteers, 1792 (1833–1835) are quintessential visual representations of heroic republicanism in France. In parallel fashion, the pre-Marxist ideas of French social thinkers like Henri de Saint-Simon (1760–1825) and Charles Fourier (1772–1837) are sometimes labeled "Romantic Socialism." To a significant degree, the end of Romanticism corresponds with the failed democratic uprisings of 1848 in many European cities.

At the same time, however, both Wordsworth in Britain and the statesman and man of letters Alphonse Lamartime (1790–1869) in France moved rightward politically during their lives, and in the culture wars of the Napoleonic and Restoration periods, Chateaubriand believed that the Catholic Church was the greatest source of French national identity and stability. Edmund Burke (1729–1797), the Anglo-Irish critic of the French Revolution and defender of church and throne, is often dubbed a political Romantic, although the label applies as much to Burke's flowery, impassioned style as to his political ideology. Correspondingly, Hegel regarded the state as the greatest expression of the world-spirit, and the Hegel-inspired cult of the messianic leader surely conduced to nondemocratic governance, so much so that some mid-twentieth-century Cold War commentators tracked the origins of totalitarianism back to the Romantic era. This seems far-fetched, but there is little doubt that in central and eastern Europe, as well as in Italy, the Romantic period brought a great upsurge of cultural nationalism, which later in European history fed less benign nationalistic sentiments and activities.

resisting definition

Coleridge once neatly summarized the Romantic desire for new and intense experience when he wrote to his fellow poet Wordsworth that "the rationally educated" could not comprehend life's deeper dimensions. It was above all the quest for these more profound levels of experience that united the Romantic project. Inevitably, the vagueness and generality of this type of cultural consciousness leaves abundant room for confusion and contradiction. Decades ago, the historian of ideas Arthur Lovejoy recommended speaking not of one but of several "Romanticisms." The sheer diversity and multiplicity of the strands of Romanticism are themselves pertinent descriptive features of the period. Rejecting the Enlightenment belief that empirical and rational inquiry, patterned on the physical sciences, would lead to a single, complete, and universal "truth," the European Romantics generated an age of intense experience that deliberately sought to cultivate diversity and resist definition.

So what finally is the "meaning" of Romanticism? Observers have been posing the question for nearly two centuries. In its essence, should Romanticism be seen as a kind of Counter-Enlightenment? Or was the Romantic phenomenon, as chronology might suggest, the cultural and artistic working out of French revolutionary ideals? Or perhaps above all it was a reaction in the realm of philosophy and the arts to the rise of material, industrial civilization with its values of capitalist production and consumption. Does Romanticism represent the first inklings of our own age's postmodernism? And did it bring a salutary reintegration of the emotional and spiritual aspects of human nature or a dangerous collapse into mass irrationalism? Similarly, is Romantic emotionality fated to end in mawkish sentimentality and self-indulgent narcissism? Inevitably, these attempts at totalized interpretation all flounder in the face of the movement's endless internal variety. Regardless of these multiple readings, this much is certain: the Romantic movement of the years 1780 to 1850 was the richest and most far-reaching period in European cultural achievement between the Italian Renaissance and the cultural transformation of modernism.

See alsoBarry, Charles; Beethoven, Ludwig van; Berlioz, Hector; Blake, William; Brahms, Johannes; Burke, Edmund; Byron, George Gordon; Carlyle, Thomas; Chateaubriand, François-René; Chopin, Frédéric; Coleridge, Samuel Taylor; Constable, John; David, Jacques-Louis; Delacroix, Eugène; Fichte, Johann Gottlieb; French Revolution; Friedrich, Caspar David; Gender; Géricault, Théodore; Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von; Goya, Francisco; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Herder, Johann Gottfried; History; Hugo, Victor; Industrial Revolution, First; Lamartine, Alphonse; Liszt, Franz; Louis II; Michelet, Jules; Music; Napoleon; Nationalism; Paganini, Niccolò; Pugin, Augustus Welby; Revolutions of 1848; Rude, François; Sand, George; Schelling, Friedrich von; Schlegel, August Wilhelm von; Schopenhauer, Arthur; Schubert, Franz; Scott, Walter; Shelley, Mary; Shelley, Percy Bysshe; Turner, J. M. W.; Viollet-le-Duc, Eugène; Wagner, Richard; Wordsworth, William.


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Mark S. Micale


views updated May 29 2018


The young and expanding United States was fertile ground for the currents of Romanticism, the intellectual, artistic, and cultural movement that had an enormous impact on European thinking and European politics in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century. Having thrown off a colonial government with a revolution grounded in the Enlightenment values of the rights of private judgment in religious matters and self-governance in political matters, the new American nation found consonance with the Romantic emphasis on self-knowledge and self-expression and the Romantic orientation against the imposition of authority by elite classes. The unique conditions of the western frontier and the socially divisive challenges of the antislavery movement and the women's rights movement generated further conditions that nourished assumptions and attitudes that were essentially Romantic in nature. Emerging from these conditions was an assertion of the value of the individual self, an intense concern with the inner workings of the perceiving mind, and an affirmation of emotion and instinct. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), in the 1841 essay "Self-Reliance," captured the spirit of his time when he termed it "the age of the first person singular" (Early Lectures 3:188). The self-reliant individualist and the figure of the hero were two key embodiments of this ethos. Their representation in fiction and poetry marked a distinctive era in American authorship and reading.


The Romantic movement gained its first American foothold in religion, the field of thought and expression that had had the longest hold on the American imagination. Throughout the eighteenth century, pressures grew to reform the principal tenets of Calvinism, the orthodoxy of the New England Puritans and an essential element of the Presbyterian, Reformed, and other established Protestant denominations. One of the distinguishing doctrines of Calvinism was election to grace, the assumption that the redeemed were not able to choose their salvation but were instead chosen by God. Because of this doctrine, Calvinism generated controversy and resistance from two quite different sides. A growing evangelical movement employed with new energy and proficiency the tools of religious revivalism that emerged in the eighteenth century. The evangelicals accentuated the place of choice and individual will in the process of salvation, thus making men and women the agents of their own spiritual fates. On the opposite side of the theological spectrum, a movement of religious liberalism contested the key theological assumptions of both Calvinism and evangelicalism and emphasized deepened spiritual awareness and character building as essential elements of religion. They held that salvation was less an instantaneous turn than a long-developing process of the cultivation of the soul. Both of these shifts in religious belief and practice had important later implications for literature in the United States. The assumptions of evangelicalism shaped much of the popular fiction and poetry of the mid-nineteenth century, and the liberal conception of religion as a continuing process of spiritual cultivation led to the rise of transcendentalism, the most important early American literary movement.

Different as they were in many essential ways, evangelical revivalism and transcendentalism shared two important attributes. First, each centered on an individual man or woman undertaking an act of choice as the basis of religious experience and religious truth. Revivalist preachers urged their hearers to moments of decision, in which they seized their own fates and consciously altered them. The revivalists created an inner drama in their hearers, challenging them to make their lives over through a momentous exercise of a choice that was their own to make. In his Lectures on the Revival of Religion (1835), Charles G. Finney (1792–1875), an important revivalist preacher and later president of Oberlin College, noted an important shift in attitude in the early nineteenth century about the process of religious revivals. Ministers and congregations were coming to believe that revivals must be planned and promoted. The revival was not a miraculous event come down from heaven, Finney argued, but an event dependent on human choice and will. It was also dependent on preparation, planning, and persuasion on the part of the minister. "A revival is the work of God," Finney wrote, "and so is a crop of wheat" (p. 268). Neither comes without human resolve and labor. Finney was representative of a new attitude that made religion less a given than a made thing, one that assumed new powers for, and placed new responsibilities on, the individual.

In contrast to the rise of evangelical revivalism, the religious liberals of New England, who came to be known as Unitarians, began to describe religion as a lifelong process of spiritual development, minimizing the significance of an isolated moment of conversion. The Unitarians emphasized an ongoing work of self-examination and self-discipline in which the will was constantly engaged in a creative expansion of receptive understanding and disciplined action. The momentous choice for salvation emphasized by the evangelicals was transmuted by the liberals into an unending series of choices in a series of ever-new creations of the self.

Romantic religion, in either its evangelical or liberal versions, was thus a religion of the individual's self-transforming power, in which choice played an central and essential role. It was also a religion of feeling, in which the emotions were powerful agents of expression. The revivals of the Second Great Awakening of the 1820s and 1830s were marked by their emotional intensity. At their core were experiences of great catharsis, in which powerful, submerged emotions were released with a potent mixture of searing remorse, anguished fear, and profoundly joyful relief. Emotion also played a role in the liberal reinterpretation of religion. In the emotionally fervent preaching, Unitarianism was often accused of a cold intellectualism. But in the emotionally fervent preaching of such liberal ministers as William Ellery Channing and Henry Ware Jr., the heart was made central to the religious experience. It was to this emotionally moving preaching that the young Ralph Waldo Emerson responded, bringing it not only into his own sermons but also into the descriptions of rapture with the natural world that marked his first book, Nature (1836), the starting point for one important strand of American literature.


The inward turn of Romanticism, with its concentration on the individual self and on the importance of the emotions, manifested itself in the figure of the hero, an exemplary or representative self who undertook great or memorable actions as a principal form of self-expression. Two important forms of the hero emerged in American literature of the nineteenth century. The first was an individual who embodied enlarged spiritual awareness and perception of the natural and social worlds and who promised a fuller experience of life and thought to ordinary men and women. The second, also a figure of unusually deep perception and feeling, was an agent of dissent and social defiance, whose powers of perception revealed a flawed or corrupt social world that must be challenged and reformed. Closely related in their roles as prophetic awakeners, these heroic figures addressed a culture that many American authors felt was marked by unfulfilled promise and an incomplete enactment of the ideals that it professed. The United States was a nation that had to be called forcefully to realize its greater potential.

In the closing pages of Emerson's Nature, the narrative voice changes to that of an "Orphic poet" who "chants" a hymn of promise to the reader. The poet proclaims that each reader has the potential to create a world in accord with his or her dreams; the key is to seize the innate power that connects one to nature, and thus to God, and to translate this power into acts that are self-transforming. Emerson would later articulate this message of self-empowerment into one of his most influential essays, "Self-Reliance" (published in his Essays: First Series, 1841), in which he encouraged his readers to reject the pressures for social conformity and "trust" themselves, recognizing that "self-trust" finally implies a trust in a transcendent "Self," or "Over-Soul," an all-encompassing source of power from which each man and woman originates. Emerson's depiction of a heroic remaking of the world had great appeal to men and women who were struggling with aspects of Calvinist or evangelical theology that seemed oppressive and authoritarian in nature (his exhortation to personal power has remained one of the key aspects of his appeal even into the twenty-first century). His message also had a clear appeal to a young society, still engaged with expansion into the frontier and still forming its communities, cities, and way of life. Americans were in many senses making a world at this period, and Emerson's message of self-trust and confident advance rang true.

The "Orphic poet" of Emerson's Nature was given a different embodiment in the poetic narrator of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" (untitled when it first appeared in Leaves of Grass, 1855), the work that revolutionized poetic form through its long and flowing lines and its adoption of direct address to the reader. Whitman (1819–1892) presented the individual as the vehicle of a new era of perception and of social relationships. The "I" who speaks directly to "you" the reader in Whitman's poem implies a conversational dialogue that subtly encourages the reader to respond. It is a poem based on the principle of interaction, and it assumes that reading is an engaged rather than a passive act. Whitman's speaker is both an ordinary man and a visionary prophet who holds forth a utopian vision of joyful self-realization, brotherhood, and spiritual fulfillment. Whitman thought of himself as the poet of the people, and he used his poems to portray with sympathy a wide range of ordinary men and women in their everyday lives; he attempted to show how ordinary experience was itself miraculous when seen from the right perspective and thus to give his readers a new sense of empowerment in their judgments and decisions.

In a similar vein, Emerson's close friend Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) described the process through which he resorted to the natural world to reclaim control over his life in Walden (1854). A description of a two-year sojourn in a cabin by Walden Pond, Thoreau's work is also a celebration of the richness of life in nature and a critique of the hurried waste of life caused by the pursuit of unnecessary material goods and luxuries. Finding wealth through his own voluntary poverty, Thoreau showed how the world opened to him anew at Walden, his distance from society and its pressures an important asset in reasserting his hold on his own life. His experiment was intended not only as a work of self-rescue but also a warning call to his readers, who needed to understand that a new freedom was available to them if they would recognize the impediments of conventional patterns. They had the power, Thoreau believed, to seize life anew.

The affirmative tone and positive energy of Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau forms an important strand of American Romanticism, but it was countered by a more embattled and defiant attitude that made the hero a figure of courageous resistance. Emerson called his society a conformist one; resistance to that conformity was a necessary step in both self-development and building a more just society. The age was also marked by extreme political conflict over issues of social justice, such as economic oppression, rights for women, and especially the persistence of legalized slavery in the American South. By insisting on the value and capacity of the individual, Romantic writers added a fuel to the forces of democratic reform that were emerging at mid-century.

One of the most memorable depictions of heroic defiance was Nathaniel Hawthorne's (1804–1864) Hester Prynne, the central character in The Scarlet Letter (1850). Hester conceived a child out of wedlock and was thus faced with anger and ostracism from the members of her New England Puritan village and the figures of religious authority there. The scarlet "A" that she is forced to wear to signify her adultery takes on a different meaning, however, as Hawthorne unfolds the story. It comes to symbolize not Hester's guilt but her bravery, and it also implies the intolerance and exclusion of her narrow and oppressive culture. Over the years, through her steadfast refusal to reveal the identity of her child's father and through her committed acceptance of her role as mother, even as a social outcast, Hester turns her badge of shame into a badge of honor. Her story is tragic, but it is also ennobling; one sees her create something positive out of her isolation and ostracism. Her principled resistance to oppressive authority wins her a kind of intellectual and moral freedom that few achieve. That she struggles against an overwhelmingly male-dominated social structure is also significant. She is a proto-feminist heroine, asserting a quality of honor and an independence that set her apart from her contemporaries.

Another example of defiant heroism emerged from the antislavery movement with the publication of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), Frederick Douglass's (1817–1895) moving autobiographical account of his escape from the power of his masters to become a free man. His movement toward freedom entails a deliberate and disciplined program of self-cultivation, in which Douglass recognizes and then acquires the power of reading and the capacity for self-directed work, eventually turning these and other skills into crucial elements of his escape into the free states. Finding himself in a free state was "a moment of the highest excitement I ever experienced," he wrote. "I felt like one who had escaped a den of hungry lions" (p. 107). Having made his own escape, Douglass connected himself with the efforts of William Lloyd Garrison's antislavery newspaper The Liberator, turning his own story and his passion for freedom into a tool against the continuance of slavery. The Liberator, Douglass wrote,

became my meat and my drink. My soul was set all on fire. Its sympathy for my brethren in bonds—its scathing denunciations of slaveholders—its faithful exposures of slavery—and its powerful attacks upon the upholders of the institution—sent a thrill of joy through my soul, such as I had never felt before! (P. 117)

Douglass was able to make his own private struggle into one that had larger social implications, as Hawthorne suggested that Hester Prynne had likewise done in her steadfast defiance of her community. In each case heroism is both a personal achievement and an enactment of principle that has a much wider social bearing. The Romantic hero or heroine thus becomes representative of a collective humanity as well as an agent of social reform.

Perhaps the most familiar form of the Romantic hero in the popular imagination is the frontiersman, the prototype of the cowboy star of western books and movies—one of the most characteristic and enduring symbols, for better or worse, of American culture. Real-life adventurers such as David Crockett, whose autobiographical memoir A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett was published in 1834, form part of the basis for this figure, but he is also mythological, an embodiment of the aspirations as well as the experiences of Americans who both lived on the frontier and viewed it imaginatively from a safe distance. James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851) best brought this figure to life in fiction in his series of five Leatherstocking novels: The Pioneers (1823), The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Prairie (1827), The Pathfinder (1840), and The Deerslayer (1841). All these works center around the character of Leatherstocking, or Natty Bumppo, the quintessential noble frontiersman. A white man with the ways and skills of an Indian, Leatherstocking lived in two cultures simultaneously. Although his sympathies were always finally with his white compatriots and their "civilization," he understood and respected the power and dignity of the Indian and viewed the advance of European settlers into the West as in many ways a tragic business. A new world was being created, but an old and valuable one lost.

Between both cultures, Leatherstocking had become a man entirely of himself and of the natural world. His attachment to nature, and his keen knowledge of it, is an especially crucial part of his character. The reverence for nature and its close identification with America's national self-image have long been in conflict with the drive to expand and develop the lands that are "unoccupied" or "unused." While the later figure of the cowboy, which evolved from Leatherstocking and characters like him, was generally associated with a celebratory support of continental expansion and the "winning of the West," Cooper's frontier hero is more complex. He is in certain senses himself a victim of that expansion, and he enables Cooper to present a more nuanced version of the moral conflicts entailed in the westward march. Through Leatherstocking, Cooper is able to show both the grandeur of western nature and the tragedy of its gradual demise.


Such powerful heroes as the Emersonian poet and Cooper's Leatherstocking generate their opposites; one of the most compelling aspects of American Romanticism is its negative pole, the countercurrent of angst, terror, and chaotic violence that answers the heroic affirmations that define the aspirations of the new nation. That vision was given its most powerful and enduring articulation in the work of Herman Melville (1819–1891), whose Moby-Dick (1851) stands as one of the great works of the Romantic imagination. In the crazed Captain Ahab, who defines his wound as the wound of all humanity and his attacker as the source of all evil, Melville defines the frightening excesses to which the Romantic ego could be taken. Observed through the eyes of Ishmael, a perceptive young sailor with an orientation to philosophy and metaphysics, Ahab seems to embody a courageous and single-minded quest for truth, a central motif of Romantic thought. He searches for the whale that maimed him but through that search hopes to get behind the surface of material things, to strike through the "mask" of appearances, to confront the deeper metaphysical elements that define existence. Ahab's quest is clearly the sign of a wounded and unbalanced mind, as Ishmael recognizes. But Ishmael is also able to see a tragic nobility in Ahab's quest. Ahab embodies the relentless drive to know all, however dark it may be, and he exhibits a concomitant courage that allows him to shake his fist in defiance even at the most sacred of things because he has seen that the universe is flawed. A less dramatically defiant, but no less disturbing figure is Melville's Bartleby, the copyist clerk in "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street" (1853), who gradually withdraws from life, puzzling those around him by turning to the wall and refusing all work with the repeated and haunting comment, "I would prefer not to." Ahab resists the world with rage, Bartleby with a quiet withdrawal, but each signals his recognition of a world askew, in which ideals and aspirations cannot thrive.


Melville exemplifies the turn in Romanticism that inverts the hero and disavows the quest for unity and understanding, replacing it with a growing recognition of chaos and darkness. The terror implicit in Melville's dark vision is highlighted in Edgar Allan Poe's (1809–1849) haunting narratives, in which madness, gothic horror, and violent death take center stage and in which the precarious balance of the human psyche is exposed and explored. While his contemporaries Hawthorne, Thoreau, and even Melville might be considered moralist in their orientation, Poe was a psychologist, concerned less with the questions of the nature of right and wrong and more with the workings of the mind under extreme stress. In "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839), widely considered to be one of Poe's masterpieces, the tale's narrator tells the terrifying story of his friend Roderick Usher's premature burial of his twin sister, Madeline. The horror of the burial is compounded by the glimpse Poe gives us of Roderick's gradual mental decay, as he hears the voice of his sister call him from her coffin. Roderick's mental suffering seems as acute as Madeline's, augmented as it is by guilt and by his own fear for his sanity. Roderick's fear is mirrored in a different way in the narrator, who struggles with his rational mind against the seemingly inescapable fact of supernatural forces at work in the Usher mansion and in the family curse. Poe's gothic tale of premature burial thus becomes a study of the psychology of mental derangement and of the rational mind's confrontation with events that seem to transcend rational explanation.

In other works, such as "The Cask of Amontillado" (1846), "The Tell-Tale Heart" (1843), and "The Black Cat" (1843), Poe employs the device of an insane narrator, whose madness slowly dawns on the reader as the story's details unfold. The gradual recognition that one is seeing the world through the eyes of insanity has a powerful impact. Poe relies on a similar experience in what is perhaps his best-known work, "The Raven" (1845), a poem in which the narrator gives a hypnotic account of his crushing realization of the finality of his lover's death. He begins as a seemingly rational man, but as the poem develops, he is tortured by grief and descends into a shrieking hysteria of denial before he collapses at the poem's end. It is Poe's testament to the mind's inability to bear the anguish of loss.


Nineteenth-century fiction and poetry offered a different kind of heroism, and a different conception of the inner life of the self, in what has come to be known as the "sentimental" or "domestic" literature of the era. Largely a literature that was written and read by women, its importance was largely overlooked until scholars in the late twentieth century recognized its value as an expression of women's culture and women's identity in the Romantic age. "Sentimentalism" is the broad category that has come to represent the fiction and poetry that represent and validate the strong emotional experiences of women and men and draw the reader into sympathetic bonds with the heroines or heroes of fictional narratives. Aligned closely with the emotion-centered evangelical religion of the nineteenth century and with the rise of both female authorship and female readership, "sentimental" novels constituted an enormous proportion of the most popular and widely discussed works of the day. Sentimentalism was criticized by "realist" writers later in the century for an excessive use of emotion and dismissed by "modernist" writers of the twentieth century for its lack of objectivity. But sentimentalism has nevertheless persisted to the early twenty-first century as an important element of popular fiction and film. Many of the elements of plot, character, and theme that gave sentimental novels of the nineteenth century their wide appeal were translated directly into the Hollywood films of the early and mid-twentieth century. The historical importance of sentimentalism in the shaping of American literature and culture was belatedly recognized in the late twentieth century through the historical reclamation of women's writing and in the growing recognition of the importance of popular taste in the construction of literary history.

Important studies by scholars such as Nina Baym, Jane Tompkins, and Mary Kelley have shown the formative power of sentimental culture in nineteenth-century American culture, especially in its ability to empower women in a society dominated by men. Novels by such authors as Lydia Maria Child, Maria Susanna Cummins, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, and Susan Warner portrayed the familial and social struggles of women and the enormous inner strength and communal support that they could summon to meet those challenges. The situations and conflicts faced by the key characters in these novels—poverty, lack of meaningful outlets for intellectual and creative expression, unreturned love and desire, psychological cruelty and mistreatment—were drawn from the real experiences of women, and they undermine the general assumption that "sentimental" novels were somehow "unrealistic." Women readers saw themselves mirrored in these heroines and were thus provided with an important means through which to assess their own lives and circumstances.

While these novels were not explicitly "feminist" in a modern sense, they did address the lives of women and did provide their readers with an important creative stimulus and an empowering representation of alternative lives that were closely related to their own. The characters and situations they portrayed spoke to a wide readership of middle-class women in an era in which women's rights and protections were an emerging social issue but hardly an achieved social goal. In one of the most influential novels of the era, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896) translated sentimental concerns and values into the growing discourse of antislavery, making the slave Tom a powerful exemplar of the spiritual resolve and inner strength that marked the domestic heroine of the sentimental novel. Stowe's novel had an enormous impact on American culture, making powerful use of both evangelical Christianity and the sentimental tradition in the cause of antislavery. In the aftermath of the Compromise of 1850, which upset many in the North with its emphasis on the return of runaway slaves, Stowe's moving portrayal of Tom gave both reality and urgency to the slavery question.

Scholars disagree about the political implications of sentimental literature. Was its tendency essentially conservative, in that it provided its readers with a way of coping with, but not directly challenging, the existing social power structures that supported and legitimized the oppression of women and the legalized slavery of African Americans? Or did it provide both identity and a measure of strength and capability to women, using the sentiments or emotions as a means of teaching lessons in ethics and social justice? The question could never be answered in such starkly binary terms, but the linkages between sentimentalism and nineteenth-century reform movements such as antislavery provide support for a view of an engaged and committed sentimentalism, whose authors were determined to speak to the conditions and consciences of their readers. Sentimental fiction embodied a critical idealism that assumed the intrinsic worth of each individual and recognized his or her right to self-development and self-expression. This was a fundamental tenet of Romanticism and helps to account for its democratic and anti-authoritarian qualities. In the context of the mid-nineteenth century, this affirmation of individual dignity and self-worth had decidedly political implications.

The Romantic era in the United States was eclipsed by the rise of "realism" in the later nineteenth century, a movement that in many ways defined itself against both the sentimentality and the idealism of Romantic fiction. But Romanticism and sentimentalism, as literary and cultural modes, have persisted in American culture. It may be argued in fact that the United States continues to be a Romantic culture whose fundamental values and symbols were shaped in the first half of the nineteenth century.

See alsoArt; Borders; Democracy; Leatherstocking Tales; Moby-Dick;Philosophy; Publishers; Religion; The Romance; The Scarlet Letter;Sentimentalism; Transcendentalism; Uncle Tom's Cabin


Primary Works

Child, Lydia Maria. Hobomok and Other Writings on Indians. 1824. Edited by Carolyn Karcher. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1986.

Cooper, James Fenimore. The Leatherstocking Tales: Volume One and The Leatherstocking Tales: Volume Two. Edited by Blake Nevius. New York: Library of America, 1985. Vol. 1 contains The Pioneers (1823), The Last of the Mohicans (1826), and The Prairie (1827), Vol. 2 contains The Pathfinder (1840) and The Deerslayer (1841).

Crockett, David. Narrative of the Life of David Crockett of the State of Tennessee. 1834. Facsimile edition. Edited by James A. Shackford and Stanley J. Folmsbee. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1973.

Cummins, Maria Susanna. The Lamplighter. 1854. Edited by Nina Baym. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1988.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of FrederickDouglass, an American Slave. Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1845.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Early Lectures of Ralph WaldoEmerson. 3 vols. Edited by Robert E. Spiller and Wallace E. Williams. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1972.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays: First Series. 1841. In Collected Works, vol. 2, edited by Alfred R. Ferguson et al. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971. Includes "Self-Reliance."

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. 1836. In Collected Works, vol. 1, edited by Alfred R. Ferguson et al. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Finney, Charles G. Lectures on Revivals of Religion. 1835. Edited by William G. McLoughlin. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1960.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. 1850. Vol. 1 of The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, edited by William Charvat et al. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1962.

Melville, Herman. "Moby-Dick," "Billy Budd," and OtherWritings. New York: Library of America, 2000. Includes Moby-Dick (1851) and "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street" (1853).

Poe, Edgar Allan. Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry and Tales. Edited by Patrick F. Quinn. New York: Library of America, 1996. Includes "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839), "The Tell-Tale Heart" (1843), "The Black Cat" (1843), "The Raven" (1845), and "The Cask of Amontillado" (1846).

Sedgwick, Catharine Maria. Hope Leslie; or, Early Times in the Massachusetts. 1827. Edited by Carolyn Karcher. New York: Penguin, 1998.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin. 1852. Introduction by Alfred Kazin. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. Edited by J. Lyndon Shanley. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1971.

Warner, Susan. The Wide, Wide World. 1850. Afterword by Jane Tompkins. New York: Feminist Press, 1987.

Whitman, Walt. Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose. Edited by Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1982. Includes "Song of Myself" (1855).

Secondary Works

Asselineau, Roger. The Evolution of Walt Whitman. Expanded ed. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999.

Baym, Nina. The Shape of Hawthorne's Career. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1976.

Baym, Nina. Woman's Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820–1870. 2nd ed. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Douglas, Ann. The Feminization of American Culture. New York: Knopf, 1977.

Fisher, Philip. Hard Facts: Setting and Form in the American Novel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Howe, Daniel Walker. Making the American Self: JonathanEdwards to Abraham Lincoln. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Howe, Daniel Walker. The Unitarian Conscience: HarvardMoral Philosophy, 1805–1861. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970.

Kelley, Mary. Private Woman, Public Stage: LiteraryDomesticity in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Levin, Harry. The Power of Blackness: Hawthorne, Poe, Melville. New York: Knopf, 1958.

Matthiessen, F. O. American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. New York: Oxford University Press, 1941.

Robinson, David M. Apostle of Culture: Emerson as Preacher and Lecturer. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.

Robinson, David M. Natural Life: Thoreau's WorldlyTranscendentalism. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2004.

Samuels, Shirley, ed. The Culture of Sentiment: Race, Gender, and Sentimentality in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Sundquist, Eric. To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making ofAmerican Literature. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1993.

Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work ofAmerican Fiction, 1790–1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Wellek, Rene. "The Concept of Romanticism in Literary History." In Concepts of Criticism, edited by Stephen G. Nichols Jr., pp. 128–198. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1963.

Zoellner, Robert. The Salt-Sea Mastodon: A Reading ofMoby-Dick. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.

David M. Robinson


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"Romanticism" and "romantic" are protean words, the despair of a rigorous semanticist. They designate a generally accepted period, especially in literature and the arts, of Western cultural history, roughly from the late eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century. They embrace a cluster or syndrome of ideas about the true, the good, the beautiful, philosophical ideas both in the popular and in the technical sense, ideas endlessly debated in the last few centuries. Although the behavioral scientists groping to establish a rigorous classification of human personality generally eschew the word, romantic remains in common use to describe a temperament or personality often, perhaps usually, held to be a constitutional element of an individual and at least in part independent of cultural fashion. In all these senses "romanticism" and "romantic" cover a multitude of particulars that in a given combination can appear very different, if not mutually incompatible. Hence so good a historian of ideas as Arthur Lovejoy urges the use of the plural, romanticisms, and can write of the "Chinese origins of a romanticism"; and W. T. Jones insists that romanticism can only be understood as a very complex syndrome of "biases" in the direction of what he calls the dynamic, the disordered, the continuous, the soft-focused, the inner, the this-worldly.

The Romantic Temperament

Sensitive, emotional, preferring color to form, the exotic to the familiar, eager for novelty, for adventure, above all for the vicarious adventure of fantasy, reveling in disorder and uncertainty, insistent on the uniqueness of the individual to the point of making a virtue of eccentricity, the typical Romantic will hold that he cannot be typical, for the very concept of "typical" suggests the work of the pigeonholing intellect he scorns. Though his contempt for this world of reason and commonsense calculation may push him toward otherworldliness, the Romantic is too much a man of words and sensations to make a good mystic. He may admire the mystic, especially the exotic mystic from the East, but he himself is a good Westerner. In fact, the difficulties of reconciling the often contradictory particulars of romanticism in respectable generalization come out in any attempt to isolate a romantic personality. William Blake has most of the marks of the Romantic, from the positive one of extreme transcendental yearning to the almost universal romantic negative one of contempt for the "meddling intellect"; yet in his quite otherworldly drawings his symbolic, mystical figures are delineated with a draftsmanship of classical solidity and of firm this-worldliness. There is nothing fuzzy, nothing Turner-like, in Blake's art. William James has the full romantic love for the struggling, the unestablished, the untried; but he cannot be accused of what he himself called "tender-mindedness," of idealistic distrust of the instrument of thought. Friedrich Nietzsche, who used "romantic" as a term of reproach, who said of Richard Wagner's music that it sweats, and called Mme. de Staël "that prolific ink-yielding cow," shared all the romantic hatreds for the shopkeeper's world of grubbing common sense and above all had the Romantic's desire for etwas mehr, the something more of Percy Bysshe Shelley's "desire of the moth for the star."

However difficult the romantic personality may be to isolate in analysis, it can be recognized all through Western cultural history, and indeed in the active life of enterprise and politics. Euripides and Catullus were surely Romantics. The Odi et amo (I hate and I love) of Catullus is a classic assertion of romantic ambivalence; the rumoresque senum severiorum/omnes unius aestimemus assis (Let us regard all the gossip of censorious old men as not worth one penny) is a fine assertion of one of the minor marks of romanticism, contempt for the Philistine decencies of the old in spirit. François Villon and François Rabelais were Romantics, even though they were Frenchmen who, as Frenchmen, so nineteenth-century English and German romanticists thought, should have been incapable of transcending the petty ways of mesure and la raison raisonnante. In our own day, the romantic temperament crops up everywherein artists and poets of course, but also in philosophers. Henri Bergson was a Romantic. But so too, it may be argued, was A. N. Whitehead; and there are scientists not untouched by the desire of the moth for the star. In active life, Alexander the Great and Napoleon Bonaparte were Romantics; Frederick the Great and Otto von Bismarck were classicists.

There are then, in our Western civilization, presumably always born romanticists and born classicistsor born Dionysians and born Apollonians, to use an expressive dualism especially popular with the Germans from Gotthold Ephraim Lessing through Nietzsche to Oswald Spengler. (The Germans usually classify themselves as the great Dionysian force in the West.) We can but guess at the distribution of these two types in a general population. Probably the well-defined or extreme temperaments are limited in numbers always; most human beings can adapt to the fashion of their age. In one age, say Vergilian and Horatian Rome, or the France of Louis XIV, the Apollonian is dominant, the Dionysian subdued, even silent. Sometimes in Apollonian ages, however, the Dionysian is the rebel, the man out of tune with his times; Giambattista Vico, perhaps, should be so listed in the Apollonian early eighteenth century. In another age, and notably in the Romantic Age here considered, the Dionysian is dominant and the Apollonian repressed, sometimes tempted, as was the quite unecstatic J. S. Mill, to romantic depths of understanding.

Romanticism and the Enlightenment

One type can be dominant, but not in sole and exclusive possession. To the cultural historian, the early and mid-eighteenth century and the early nineteenth can stand for two great antithetical styles or fashions: the first, classical or enlightened; the second, romantic. The years from about 1770 to the first decade of the nineteenth century are obviously years of transition. In a graph, the rising lines of Romanticism cross the descending lines of classicism somewhere in the 1770s in Germany (with the heyday of "Sturm und Drang"), 1798 in England (with the publication of the Lyrical Ballads ), and 1820 in France (with the publication of Méditations by Alphonse-Marie-Louis de Prat de Lamartine). But even after the triumph of Romanticism as a cultural fashion, individuals and groups continued to display the tastes and attitudes associated with the classicism and rationalism of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment J. S. Mill tells us in his autobiography that he was influenced by the lyricism and even the transcendentalism of the Lake poets, notably Samuel Taylor Coleridge; but the influence seems not to have weaned him away from the fundamentals of Benthamite thought. In France the thought of such men as Comte de Saint-Simon, Louis Blanc, Auguste Comte, though some of the externals of romantic fashion are visible among them, is, on the whole, along with that of the French Left generally, true to the traditions of the philosophes. Even in Germany, a philosopher such as Ludwig Feuerbach asserts the unromantic doctrines of materialism; and Marxism itself, though it shows romantic marksthe concept of the dialectic, derived of course from G. W. F. Hegel, is essentially romantic in its insistence on change as an overcoming of contradictionsis nonetheless committed to an optimistic and very eighteenth-century stand on the rational organization of man and society.

The romantic generation was indeed very conscious of breaking sharply with its parents and grandparents. Few breaks between cultural generations in the West have been more vigorously asserted than this one. The romantic youth absorbed in the depths of William Wordsworth's Prelude, or Vicomte Chateaubriand's Génie du Christianisme, or Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust felt nothing but contempt for the abstract ideas and the confined tastes of his shallow Voltairean grandfather. To a surprising extent, the fashionable Romantic wasor claimed to bein all things the opposite of the Enlightened. Yet our own generation can hardly avoid holding that the romantic rebellion against its parent was in itself a proof of the filial relation between Romanticism and Enlightenment. Not only were the ideas of men like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Vico, Lessing, and even Denis Diderot, all of whom lived at the height of the Enlightenment, seminal to all later Romanticism, but both Enlightenment and Romanticism shared mucha belief in process, change, if not actually progress, a belief in the possibilities of manipulating the environment, indeed a fundamental and very modern relativism never really transcended in the search for eternal verities. Both, whatever their metaphysical position on the problem of determinism, in practice displayed a firm conviction that things not only change, but that they can be changed by human effort. Of many specific doctrinesprimitivism, for instance, or individualism in ethics and politicsit is hard to decide whether they are more characteristic of enlightened or of romantic thought.

Some Specific Romanticisms: Art and Letters

The romantic touch is extremely visible in all the arts, from painting through architecture to interior decoration. Bright colors, or soft and fuzzy ones; exotic themes, Oriental scenes; crowded and action-filled historical paintingsconcretely, almost any canvas by Eugène Delacroixset romantic painting off from the sculptured Roman figures of David. And yet, to point up the coexistence of the romantic and the classical throughout the period, the sharp outlines, the measured realismthe Romantic would hold, the conventionalityof the portraits by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, who survived until 1867, outdo David's in classical firmness. The great romantic style in architecture was the neo-Gothic, itself a manifestation of the romantic rehabilitation of everything medieval that had been held in contempt by the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Yet Neo-Gothic was never a dominant style, not even in the Nordic lands; moreover, it soon fell into a most unmedieval and unromantic regularity and repetitiveness of detail. But Romanticism did rescue from the neglect in which they had long been left the great medieval cathedrals. In the decorative arts romantic tastes were extremely eclectic, fond of the exotic, addicted to rich dark woods and, in the climax of the Victorian drawing room, to a clutter of display wholly dependent on the existence of inexpensive domestic labor. In music, the romantic at its extreme went in for program music, birdcalls and thunderstorms, vast orchestras, and appropriate dissonances. The difference between the music of Joseph Haydn or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and that of Hector Berlioz or Wagner, like that between the painting of David and that of Delacroix, is obvious to the most untutored.

Poetry, the novel, and history are the great romantic literary genres, and in all of them the romantic syndrome is readily recognized. Although Goethe was a complex personality who was frequently in conflict with contemporary representatives of the romantic movement, his Faust is in itself a masterly summary of romantic themes: revolt against the dullness, the narrowness of rationalism ("gray dear friend is all theory, green only life's eternal tree"), striving for etwas mehr, for the infinite (the essential theme of Faust's bargain with Mephistopheles); contempt for the Philistine, the literal-minded ordinary man (the walk with Wagner); primitivism (Gretchen's innocence); ambivalence ("Two souls, alas, live in my breast"); and much else, right on to the final chorus mysticus of Part II. Indeed, this last is a fine touchstone; anyone who finds it nonsense or at least unpalatable is definitely not Romantic:

Alles Vergängliche
Ist nur ein Gleichnis;
Das Unzulängliche
Hier wird's Ereignis;
Das Unbeschreibliche
Hier ist's getan;
Das Ewig-Weibliche
Zieht uns hinan.

The three English Lake Poets, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Robert Southey, together pretty well cover the romantic range; and Wordsworth's "The Tables Turned" ("One impulse from a vernal wood," "We murder to dissect," "Enough of science and of art;/Close up those barren leaves") states the central position of the romantic Weltanschauung almost as neatly as Goethe's Gefühl ist alles. One more figure, one more complex of themes, is needed to round out our concept of romantic poetry: This is the unhappy, misunderstood, heroic Promethean figure, half Shelley and all Lord Byron. In terms of sheer educated fashion, Byron and his whole train of European congeners (imitators would be an unfair word here)Alfred de Musset, Alfred-Victor de Vigny, Giacomo Leopardi, José de Espronceda, Mikhail Lermontov, and the restmay stand for the romantic poet.

Forerunners of the romantic novel are clear in the eighteenth-century "Gothic" novel, such as those of Ann Radcliffe (so charmingly satirized by the nonromantic Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey ); in the sentimental novel, such as Rousseau's Nouvelle Héloïse ; and in the psychological novel of disturbed and disturbing love, such as Pierre-Ambroise-François Choderlos de Laclos's Liaisons dangereuses and the novels of the Marquis de Sade. The psychological novel reaches its best in the work of Stendhal, whose heroes foreshadow a long line of adventurers of soul and body, a line by no means extinct today. Yet in terms of the wider public of romantic fashion, Walter Scott's Waverley novels were the great success of their day. They carried their audience back into a simpler, more varied, more interesting past than the present of the Industrial Revolution. They exemplified that other inheritance from the German side of the Enlightenment, the theme, best marked in Johann Gottfried Herder, of organic historic growth of a folk spirit, a folk character, a product of time, not a product of the planning, present-bound intellect. One lost one's self in Sir Walter's pages, became one with one's own best past. We are a long way from Henry St. John Bolingbroke's definition of history as "philosophy teaching by examples."

History and Political Thought

The writing of serious history received a great impetus from the romantic movement, and in particular from Scott's work. Augustin Thierry, Jules Michelet, the Heidelberg school in Germany; in England Henry Hallam, indeed T. Macaulay, by no means a Romantic in temperament; and in the United States the great New England school of W. H. Prescott, J. L. Motley, and Francis Parkman wrote history for a wide reading public, history with narrative force and movement, history with a message of patriotism, of identification with a folk, yet also history carefully reconstructed by painstaking research. The historian and the critic of art and literature insisted on one of the great romantic themes: continuity, the continuity of life and flow, growth, development; a process, to the Romantic, always denatured, indeed destroyed, by the dividing analytical mind ("We murder to dissect").

The complexities and difficulties of generalizing about Romanticism come out most clearly, perhaps, in the field of political thought. You can, of course, always construct a pair of Procrustean beds: a conservative bed for the Romantics; a liberal, progressive, or radical bed for the Enlightened. Edmund Burke and Scott can be squeezed into the first, Thomas Paine, W. Godwin, Thomas Jefferson into the second. But the trouble is that you can quite plausibly switch the beds, putting the Romantics into the liberal or progressive bed, the Enlightened into the conservative bed. Shelley, Byron, Benjamin Constant can go into the first; Voltaire (surely no democrat), John Adams, the idéologues who rallied to Napoleon can go into the second. But Victor Hugo would have to be divided, his younger self put into the conservative, his older self into the liberal bed.

Critics have indeed tried to fix Romanticism on one side or the other in politics, andgiven their premisesnot without some success. Probably in the balance Romanticism has worked toward the growth of modern democracy, toward a belief in progress and toward "liberty, equality, fraternity," toward the open societytoward much, in fact, that gets its start from the rationalists of the Enlightenment. Yet the Burkean belief in human fallibility, human blindness of passion, and in tradition-enshrined institutional dikes to restrain these anarchic thrusts (dikes not to be tampered with by the intellect), as well as belief in the folk, in an organic society not the product of planning, is surely also congruous with much of Romanticism. So too is the anti-intellectual strain that comes out much later in theories of racism, elitism, Blut und Boden, in Nazism and Fascism.


Romanticism is more than a fashion in arts and letters, more than an approach to political problems: It is a philosophy, or better, a set of philosophies loosely tied together if only by their common rejection of eighteenth-century rationalism, of refusal to line up, shall we say, on the Locke-Hume axis. Arthur Schopenhauer is the arch Romantic, the extreme Romantic, among formal philosophers. The world of phenomena, of sense perception, is to him unreal; the will that moves the universe is real enough, but certainly is not rationally knowable by those it moves; this will is blind, shapeless, evil; life, merely phenomenal though it is, is still for us all painful, wearisome, a long unhappy voyage (note the metaphors of movement); Schopenhauer seems at times to hold that a nirvana of surcease is perhaps attainable; at any rate, this life is hopeless.

Romantic pessimism is not, however, the central theme of philosophy in these years. Hegel, at bottom an optimist, is much more central. In a sense, the great romantic philosophers, most of them Germans, go back to Immanuel Kant, who always thought of himself as firmly enlightened, and whose brief Was ist Aufklärung? is one of the landmarks of the century of prose and reason. The romantic seedling in Kant, however, is his distinction between the noumenal and the phenomenal, and his resolution of the dualism by what amounts to intuition or faith. Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Friedrich Schleiermacher and the rest developed this essentially romantic reliance on a "faculty" transcending common calculating logic. Hegel accepted, and gave his own turn to, this very old dualism of spirit-matter, real-unreal, and sought to bring them together by his famous and influential concept of the dialectic of thesisantithesissynthesis. The dialectic in all its forms displays a most nineteenth-century and romantic general bias toward historicism, process, developmentbut such a process seen teleologically as an end, a purpose. For Schopenhauer, there was no end save extinction. But for Hegel there was an end, a vague one, a Germanic eternal peace in which change somehow turns out to be, in the workings of the World-Spirit, the real form of permanence.

These philosophers, trained and subtle professionals whom we have no doubt traduced in this brief account, are less definitely to be associated with Romanticism as a broad cultural movement than the popularizers, the essayists, the preachers. To many devotees of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and John Ruskin, and to those who listened to bumblers like Bronson Alcott, romantic philosophy became fashionable transcendentalism, an agreeable summary of the less difficult phases of romantic thoughtcontempt for the rationalist side of the eighteenth century (indeed, blindness to the existence of any other side of that century), exaltation of intuition, spirit, sensibility, imagination, faith, the unmeasurable, the infinite, the wordlessor at least, only the noblest sounding words. This sort of Romanticism was indeed a solace and an escape, an escape from the difficult and unlovely works that science, technology, and industry were building. But it is by no means the whole of Romanticism, which as a spiritual spur to precisely the kind of invention, adventure, and enterprise, to the preoccupation with change and growth, that was building the new world of the nineteenth century, must be seen as having played, and as continuing to play, an essential part, along with the rational and scientific inheritance from the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, in building our own world of today.

See also Art, Expression in; Bergson, Henri; Blake, William; Bolingbroke, Henry St. John; Burke, Edmund; Carlyle, Thomas; Chateaubriand, François René de; Coleridge, Samuel Taylor; Comte, Auguste; Diderot, Denis; Emerson, Ralph Waldo; Enlightenment; Feuerbach, Ludwig Andreas; Fichte, Johann Gottlieb; Godwin, William; Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Herder, Johann Gottfried; Hume, David; James, William; Jefferson, Thomas; Leopardi, Count Giacomo; Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim; Locke, John; Lovejoy, Arthur Oncken; Mill, John Stuart; Neo-Kantianism; New England Transcendentalism; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Paine, Thomas; Pessimism and Optimism; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; Ruskin, John; Saint-Simon, Claude-Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de; Schleiermacher, Friedrich Daniel Ernst; Schopenhauer, Arthur; Shelley, Percy Bysshe; Spengler, Oswald; Staël-Holstein, Anne Louise Germaine Necker, Baronne de; Vico, Giambattista; Whitehead, Alfred North.


Romanticism is not only a complex cluster of ideas; it is one that arouses strong feelings among critics and historians, and that has had its ups and downs in the estimation of the various cultural generations since the late eighteenth century. The following should set the reader on his way through these thickets of critical and philosophical discussion of Romanticism.

Howard Hugo, ed., The Romantic Reader (New York: Viking Press, 1957), is an admirable anthology with a good bibliography of works in English and a useful prologue, "What the Romantics Said about Romanticism." W. T. Jones, The Romantic Syndrome (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1961), presents a very suggestive analysis, helpful for all study of the history of ideas. Jacques Barzun, Classic, Romantic and Modern (Boston: Little, Brown, 1961), contains the ablest defense of Romanticism; see the section "RomanticA Sampling of Modern Usage" (pp. 155168). G. A. Borgese, "Romanticism," Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences (New York, 1934), Vol. XIII (VII), a remarkably rich brief account, with full bibliographies up to 1934 in all Western tongues, is sympathetic. Irving Babbitt, Rousseau and Romanticism (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1919), is still the sharpest attack on Romanticism. A. O. Lovejoy, Essays in the History of Ideas (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1948), contains several pertinent essays, especially one titled "On the Discrimination of Romanticisms." Sir Maurice Bowra, The Romantic Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1949), is a graceful essay by a distinguished English scholar and critic. Walter Jackson Bate, From Classic to Romantic (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1946), is one of the best studies of the complex interweaving of classic and romantic in English literature. Ricarda Huch, Blüthezeit der Romantik, 12th ed. (Leipzig, 1922), and Ausbreitung und Verfall der Romantik, 10th ed. (Leipzig, 1922), are sympathetic and graceful accounts of the German Romantics. Pierre Lasserre, Le Romantisme français (Paris, 1907), is an unsympathetic account of the French Romantics.

Crane Brinton (1967)


views updated May 23 2018


ROMANTICISM. According to most definitions, Romanticism begins sometime around or after 1789, the terminal date of this encyclopedia and the moment of the French Revolution. 1789 has been the key date in a good many historical narratives, the point at which everything is thought to have changed forever. But much of what we recognize as Romantic was in place before the Revolution. Confusion arises from the way in which scholars and critics have understood Romanticism as both a period (somewhere between 1760 and 1850) and an attitude or disposition whose priorities include (but are not limited to) emotionalism, excessive self-consciousness, respect for the dignity of childhood, a critique of neoclassicism, an interest in folk culture and primitive origins, a preference for rural life, and a high valuation of private reading over public performance. Artists or writers who foreshadow these concerns before 1789 are likely to be called "Preromantics" (Brown, 1991) or to be assigned to the "age of sensibility" (Hilles and Bloom). The poet George Crabbe (17541832) is squarely within the Romantic period but is anti-Romantic because he opposes the spirit of the age. Some writers, like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (17491832), go through Romantic and anti-Romantic phases; others, like Lord Byron (17881824), appear throughout as excessively Romantic in some ways (the melodramatic hero) and doggedly antagonistic in others (the decision to use neoclassical rhyming couplets).

Romanticism can be politically radical and democratic (as it was held to be in Britain among the poetic avant-garde in the 1790s) or reactionary and traditional (as it mostly was in France). Often it can be somewhere in between, leading to a lively controversy about, for example, the politics of William Wordsworth's (17701850) poetry. National chronologies also vary significantly. British and German Romanticisms are held to be well under way in the 1790s; French and other European Romanticisms come later, in the 1800s and after; and American Romanticism comes later still. Romanticism also varies according to the forms and genres we examine. Ludwig van Beethoven (17701827) and Franz Schubert (17971828) are Romantics; there are Romantic painters (Francisco Goya [17461828], James Mallord William Turner [17751852], and Eugène Delacroix [17981863]); but there is no familiar concept of Romantic architecture (Gothic revival comes closest). There is lots of Romantic literature, especially poetry.

Intellectual historians have often favored explanations relating both the Revolution and Romanticism to preexisting conditions, and in this they repeat a common assumption of the 1790s whereby massive historical changes were attributed to the power of ideas. Commentators of both left and right blamed or praised Voltaire (16941778), Denis Diderot (17131784), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778) for historical events that none of them lived to see. Many recent interpreters have assimilated Romanticism into a "long eighteenth century" starting around 1690 and extending well into the 1800s, making it central to our understanding of modernity as a whole. Others retain an allegiance to the idea of a clear break between a "classical" eighteenth century and a "modern" worldview. Michel Foucault took the second position in describing the emergence of the "sciences of man," for which biocultural life is both the origin and the object of knowledge. The compulsive reflexivity and often anxious self-consciousness emanating from this sense of temporality can also be traced in historically earlier forms, though we might agree that it comes to be dominant and impossible to ignore in the Romantic period and the Romantic attitude. Debates between the so-called ancients and moderns throughout the eighteenth century had taken up the question of how much we could expect to understand in the literature of the past, given its different conditions of production and reception. Some felt that truth was transhistorical and natural, others that meaning could only be recovered by careful and patient research (Levine).

The 1700s also saw the emergence of a biblical hermeneutics (science of interpretation) concerned to establish the origins and relative authenticities of the various parts of the Bible (Frei): the sacred book was given human time and place. Again, the Romantic interest in folk and popular culture emerged from a preexisting tradition of antiquarianism that was already implicated in a nationalist-imperialist agenda, one that became even more urgent during the European and world wars that dominated the years between 1793 and 1815. Romanticism embodies a north European, Gothic primitivism that could be invoked to support both popular democracy and the monarchist alliance against Napoleon, as well as a liberal-classicist, cosmopolitan admiration of the pagan Mediterranean that was used to critique the restorations of 1815 (Butler, ch. 5). We can look to Romanticism as containing forms of resistance to the "civilizing process" described by Norbert Elias, evident, for example, in the revolt of Lord Byron, Robert Burns (17591796), and Gérard de Nerval (18081855) against the rituals of bourgeois self-discipline. However, it includes also those forms of acutely anxious self-examination, as in William Wordsworth's or John Keats's (17951821) poetry, which are so clearly coincident with the taming of social violence and the internalization of revolt that Elias traced in the evolution of modern manners.

Romanticism has mostly been a polemical and politicized construction, whether in the interpretations of latter-day scholars (Simpson, 1993, 2000) or in the earliest inventions of the category itself. Hegel gave us the most forceful early definition in positing Romanticism as marked by a turn from the external to the internal, spiritual world and the afterlife. He saw this beginning in the Christian Middle Ages and intensifying in later centuries. His Romanticism is thereby somewhat coincident with the royalist, Christian, antirevolutionary movement typified by François René Chateaubriand (17681848) and Victor Hugo (18021885). A chronologically more contained Romanticism has been based on the Byronic hero, with its obvious allusions to the figure of Napoleon in its liberating as well as its tyrannical incarnations. Still another can be based on the new interest in folk culture (Johann Gottfried von Herder [17441803], William Wordsworth, Robert Burns, and Sir Walter Scott[17711832]). Romanticism has been identified with both religion (orthodox and nonconformist) and atheism, with the political right and left, with progressive optimism and besetting nostalgia, according to the needs of its various interpreters. It is perhaps best understood as an assembly of all of these tendencies (and others) within a loosely understood historical period, giving us the tools for setting about a study of individual artists or movements without imposing a prescriptive boundary.

See also English Literature and Language ; French Literature and Language ; German Literature and Language ; Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von ; Goya y Lucientes, Francisco de ; Herder, Johann Gottfried von ; Revolutions, Age of .


Brown, Marshall. The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism. Vol. 5, Romanticism. Cambridge, U.K., 2000.

. Preromanticism. Stanford, 1991.

Butler, Marilyn. Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries: English Literature and its Background, 17601830. New York and Oxford, 1982.

Elias, Norbert. The Civilizing Process. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. Oxford, 1994.

Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York, 1973.

Frei, Hans W. The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth-Century Hermeneutics. New Haven and London, 1974.

Hegel, G. W. F. Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art. Translated by T. M. Knox. Oxford, 1975.

Hilles, Frederick W., and Harold Bloom. From Sensibility to Romanticism: Essays Presented to Frederick A. Pottle. London, Oxford, and New York, 1965.

Levine, Joseph M. The Battle of the Books: History and Literature in the Augustan Age. Ithaca, N.Y., and London, 1991.

Simpson, David. "The French Revolution." In The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism. Vol. 5, Romanticism, edited by Marshall Brown, pp. 4971. Cambridge, U.K., 2000.

. Romanticism, Nationalism and the Revolt against Theory. Chicago and London, 1993.

David Simpson


views updated Jun 08 2018


ROMANTICISM. Ever since A. O. Lovejoy explained the importance of "discriminating among" the strands, scholars have resisted treating "Romanticism" as a single unified historical movement. Without minimizing this variety, however, it is still possible to identify some emphases common to western Romanticisms, whether in the United States, England, or on the continent, especially in France and Germany. All celebrate the importance of the individual. Most represent human potential in terms of an organic link with the natural world. Many depict this capacity for human growth as the triumph of the intuitive over the methodical and rational. Some suppose that individual self-culture will lead to social progress, even political revolution.

The Beginnings of American Romanticism

In the United States, anticipations of Romanticism appear as early as the late eighteenth century—most notably in discussions of the sublime and the picturesque in landscape, and in the influence of the "moral sense" philosophy of such post-Lockeans as Francis Hutcheson, Dugald Stewart, and Thomas Reid. Although such proto-Romanticism can be found even in the works of Jonathan Edwards and Thomas Jefferson, it is most evident in the gothic and sentimental fictions that flourished in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It is customary, however, to date the official beginning of American Romanticism from the rise of Bostonian "transcendentalism" in the 1830s. An outgrowth of liberal Christianity, transcendentalism began as occasional meetings among recent graduates of the Harvard Divinity School. The so-called Transcendental Club soon expanded into more inclusive discussions among men and (a few) women of general interests—primarily in philosophy, literature, and moral theology. From 1840 to 1844, the group published its own journal, The Dial. But its most important statement was one of its earliest: published in 1836, a few days before the club's first meeting, the little book Nature became the unofficial "credo" of transcendentalism, from its most influential spokesperson, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Emerson's Nature was less concerned with the natural landscape than with the role that individual thought played in perceiving the world of substance. In his argument for the creative power of consciousness, Emerson drew not only on the Scottish moral sense philosophers, but also on European epistemology in general, with special emphasis on René Descartes, John Locke, and Immanuel Kant. He learned from Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, perhaps through intermediaries like Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Victor Cousin, to value the intuitions of Reason over the mechanical demonstrations of the Understanding. Most of the book outlined the value of idealism, with a complementary lack of interest in the material world. However radical Emerson's embrace of Kantian idealism, readers found more compelling the uplifting poetry of the prophetic final chapter "Prospects." When one's life conformed, Emerson claimed, to the "true idea" in one's mind, the influx of spirit would work a "corresponding revolution" in things. Not only did the disagreeable vanish; man, understood as a "god in ruins," once again established dominion over his kingdom.

Emerson was transcendentalism's most philosophical writer and its greatest advocate for unification with the Universal Spirit or the One. He was less interested in the practical consequences of that union. When invited to join a local reform group, he refused to lift "the siege of [my] hencoop" to "march baffled away to a pretended siege of Babylon." Most transcendentalists, however, saw spiritual purification as only the first step in political reform. Bronson Alcott and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody actively engaged in humanizing secondary education; while George Ripley put into practice the theories of French utopian Charles Fourier in his communal experiment at Brook Farm. Most influential in their politics were the two students most closely influenced by Emerson—Margaret Fuller and Henry David Thoreau. Emerson's coeditor at The Dial, Fuller was famous for her travel writing, reviews, and translations, and as part of the Italian unification movement. But her most celebrated work was "The Great Lawsuit: MAN versus MEN. WOMAN versus WOMEN," published first in The Dial in 1845 and expanded soon thereafter into the book-length Woman in the Nineteenth Century. The most influential feminist tract between those of Mary Wollstonecraft and Virginia Woolf, Woman explored gendered aspects of Emerson's sexless Universal. Just as Emerson foretold the advent of godlike American scholars and poets, so Fuller ended her work rhapsodically awaiting the second coming of woman as a daughter of God: "Would [woman] but assume her inheritance, Mary would not be the only Virgin Mother. … The soul is ever young, ever virgin."

Like Fuller, Thoreau introduced social realities into Emerson's abstract philosophy. In A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854), and numerous essays, he examined with microscopic attention the natural world that for Emerson remained merely ideal and phenomenal. More important, perhaps, was his early and unflinching opposition to slavery. Notorious in his age for his 1860 defense of John Brown, Thoreau has in later generations been more celebrated for his earlier piece, "Resistance to Civil Government" (1849), which under the posthumous title of "Civil Disobedience" helped shape Gandhi's and Martin Luther King Jr.'s policies of passive resistance. Taking to its logical conclusion the Emersonian proposition that society conspires against the "manhood" of its members, Thoreau announced that "that government is best which governs not at all."

Beyond Transcendentalism

Romanticism among American writers was not, however, restricted to the New England transcendentalists. Some Romantic novelists responded directly to transcendental theories—whether negatively as in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance (1852) or more ambivalently as in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851). Romantic historians like George Bancroft, Francis Parkman, and William Prescott tempered fact with a gripping narrative style to celebrate a "democratic" vision of America. Most puzzling, especially in its regional allegiances with both the North and the South, was the work of Edgar Allan Poe. Continuing older literary traditions, Poe's use of the gothic superimposed on a popular commercial genre a metaphysical density that was at times indistinguishable from Emerson's—by Poe's own account a Gothicism "not of Germany, but of the Mind."

The place of Romanticism outside of literature is harder to assess. Unitarianism shared many characteristics with the transcendentalist movement it spawned, particularly its distaste for the stern Calvinist image of God, and its support for liberal political reform. It was less comfortable, however, with Emersonian notions of the divinity in man, and openly opposed the transcendentalists' rejection of both the Holy Trinity and Christ's miracles. More generally, the religious intensity of the mid-century can be seen as broadly Romantic, and in fact transcendentalism has frequently been read as a more secular form of the revivalism that swept the Midwest and the "burned-over" district of upstate New York. Here the shifting allegiances of the Beecher family may be taken as representative. Firmly grounded in a Calvinist tradition of fire-and-brimstone preaching, Lyman Beecher openly rejected the "icy" rhetoric of Boston Unitarianism. Although his gradualist approach to both salvation and abolition seemed too cautious for the more fiery imagination of the frontier preacher Charles Grandison Finney, Beecher eventually became reconciled to Finney's evangelicalism to avoid the greater dangers of Bostonian secularism. By the next generation, Lyman's son Henry Ward Beecher was able to combine traditional Presbyterianism with a philosophical outlook not far from Emerson's own.

The point of convergence between religious and more secular Romanticisms was a shared sense of the perfectibility of man. Perfectibility had been a common theme of progressive Enlightenment philosophy. In mid-nineteenth-century America, however, the religious dimensions of programs for the betterment of individuals may have also reinforced conservative politics. The attempts of such benevolence societies as the American Bible Association and the American Tract Society to enlighten the lower classes also had the effect of bringing those previously ignored groups under more careful social surveillance. A similarly uncomfortable compromise between personal advancement and social control can be seen in the period's preoccupation with institutionalization, especially the prison reform movement.

The ambiguities by which Romantic reform of the individual also bound down the underprivileged are perhaps most evident in the women's movement. The most transcendental feminists like Fuller and Peabody eschewed any group activity to focus exclusively on self-cultivation. But more mainstream proponents like Catherine Beecher located female excellence in the special characteristics of women. This argument afforded the movement great power only at the expense of reinforcing domestic stereotypes. The limitations of this position informed much of mid-century women's fiction. The heroine's triumph over adversity in best-sellers like Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World (1851) and Maria Cummins's The Lamplighter (1854) was accomplished by obedience to authority, spiritual and patriarchal. Even in Harriet Beecher Stowe's fierce Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851– 1852), the conclusion—that slavery can be ended only through the reform of individuals into a state of "right feeling"—betrayed both its origins in Emerson's self-reliance and the insufficiency of transcendentalism as a political tool.

Eventually absorbed into the political ferment of antebellum culture, Romanticism as a movement was eclipsed by more pressing realities of secession and reconstruction. Yet the precepts of Romanticism continue to shape culture today. Modern Romanticism is most apparent in the poetic tradition, where the experiments of the late Romantic experimental poets Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson stand as models for most subsequent poetry, not only of Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens, but later of Elizabeth Bishop, Adrienne Rich, and John Ashbery. Even intellectual traditions like pragmatism and naturalism that define themselves in opposition to Romanticism still maintain clear links to the earlier tradition; there is as much of Emersonian individualism in William James, Theodore Dreiser, and Ernest Hemingway as in any of his Boston contemporaries. On the darker side, cynical readings of individualism and perfectibility are regularly used to justify contemporary laissez-faire economics and corporate greed. As a literary and philosophical movement, American Romanticism ended in 1865; as a cultural mentality, it is still very much with us.


Davis, David Brion, ed. Antebellum Reform. New York: Harper and Row, 1967. Particularly fine essay by John L. Thomas on Romantic reform.

Hutchison, William R. The Transcendentalist Ministers: Church Reform in the New England Renaissance. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1959.

Matthiessen, F. O. American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. New York: Oxford University Press, 1941.

Packer, Barbara L. "The Transcendentalists." In The Cambridge History of American Literature, Volume II; 1820–1865. Edited by Sacvan Bercovitch. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Rose, Ann C. Transcendentalism As a Social Movement, 1830– 1850. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981.

Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790–1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. Fine feminist account of sentimental fiction.

DavidVan Leer

See alsoTranscendentalism .


views updated Jun 11 2018


The late 1790s through the 1820s constitute the early or introductory period of romanticism in the United States, when radically new ideas about literature, philosophy, and theology coming out of England and Germany were first transplanted to American soil. The published works of the English poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in particular their Lyrical Ballads (1798), proclaimed a self-consciously modern literary and artistic esthetic. Inspired by the social idealism of the French Revolution, Wordsworth and Coleridge celebrated unbounded creativity and individual genius over mundane pursuits, the primacy of feelings and intuition over the rational intellect, and an awe-inspiring, infinite Creation over the finite, mechanistic universe of eighteenth-century natural philosophy. Despite this early introduction, it would be a full generation before the more serious philosophical and theological aspects of romanticism bore mature fruit on American soil in the transcendentalist movement, in the "higher criticism" of the Bible, and in the abolitionists' "higher law" arguments against slavery.

The romantic fascination with the marvelous and mysterious found popular expression much earlier, however, in the "romance" (also known as the "historical romance"), a literary genre first introduced in the 1810s by Sir Walter Scott's immensely popular Waverley novels. Scott's richly woven Scottish narratives led some American critics to lament the absence in North America of a feudal past peopled by chivalrous knights and ancient ruins, or of mistshrouded forests filled with gloomy shadows and ghostly apparitions. Other American writers, however, most notably Washington Irving (1783–1859) and James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851), were inspired by Scott's example to find in the nation's rough-hewn frontier settlements, dwindling American Indian population, and mythologized colonial and Revolutionary eras subjects suitable for distinctly American romances.

American romanticism's mature period is centered unavoidably in New England. It is important to note, however, the mid-Atlantic and Southern origins of many early American romantic writers and artists. Charles Brockden Brown (1771–1810), whose supernatural tale Wieland (1798) is considered the earliest American romance, was born in Philadelphia and spent most of his adult life in Pennsylvania and New York. Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales, a series of five novels begun in 1823 with The Pioneers and continued over the next decade in The Last of the Mohicans, The Prairie, The Pathfinder, and The Deerslayer, together with Irving's The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1820), represent the coming of age of the American romance. Both Cooper and Irving lived nearly their entire lives in New York State. Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849), born in Massachusetts, spent most of his life in New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Richmond; the poet William Cullen Bryant (1794–1878), also from Massachusetts, lived and wrote in New York City. Washington Allston (1779–1843), considered the father of American romantic painting, was a native son of South Carolina.

The transition from the early, popular period of American romanticism to its mature philosophical and theological phase is best exemplified by the career of Edward Everett (1794–1865), a Massachusetts-born scholar considered by many contemporaries to be the foremost intellectual of his generation. While a student at Harvard College, Everett, like many of his classmates, first read about German romantic or post-Kantian scholarship in Madame de Staël's De l'Allemagne (1813) and in the works of British writers such as Coleridge. After graduating with highest honors, in 1815 Everett accepted an invitation from Harvard to become the Eliot Professor of Greek Literature and negotiated a three-year preparatory trip to Europe. Traveling to Germany with his friend George Ticknor (1791–1871), Everett studied at the University of Göttingen under the direction of Johann Gottfried Eichhorn, Germany's foremost scholar of the Hebrew Bible and the leading exponent of biblical "higher criticism." Ticknor returned home after a year abroad to assume the positions of Professor of Belles Lettres and Smith Professor of the French and Spanish Languages and Literatures at Harvard. Everett completed his studies in 1817, making him the first American to earn a doctorate at a German university.

In January 1817, Everett published a long essay on Goethe in the North American Review, the first significant essay on German romantic literature to appear in an American periodical. Later, as editor of that journal from 1820 to 1824, Everett published a series of influential essays that celebrated the American romance as the first indigenous national literature. A lengthy review essay on Cooper's historical romance The Spy (1821) triumphantly asserted that "there never was a nation whose history … affords better or more abundant matter for romantic interest than ours." Everett's critical promotion of German romantic literature made a lasting impression on the rising generation of New England intellectuals, in particular the young Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), who lauded Everett's intellectual influence as "comparable to that of Pericles of Athens." Everett, Emerson noted in his journal, was "the first American scholar who sat in the German universities and brought us home in his head their whole cultured methods and results."

After Everett's resignation as editor of the North American Review, the periodical's essayists slowly reversed their earlier positive interpretations of the American romance. Dismissing the genre as overly fantastic and cliché-ridden, critics applauded the novel's greater narrative and emotional verisimilitude. This portentous shift, which reflected the growing cultural influence of Boston's Unitarian intellectuals, set the stage for the emergence of transcendentalism in the 1830s and for the full flowering of American romanticism in the 1840s and 1850s. James Marsh (1794–1842), a Vermont Congregational minister, was the first American transcendentalist to respond critically to this transformation of New England culture. In a long "Preliminary Essay" to the first American edition of Coleridge's Aids to Reflection (1828), Marsh condemned the arid mixture of British empiricism and Scottish common sense philosophy that dominated American intellectual and religious life. "So long as we hold the doctrines of Locke and the Scottish metaphysicians," Marsh observed, we "can make and defend no essential distinction between that which is natural, and that which is spiritual." Breaking decidedly with the Unitarians' authorization of scientific naturalism and philosophical realism, Marsh argued that self-inspection, reflecting upon "the mysterious grounds of our own being," was the only means by which individuals could arrive at certain knowledge "of the central and absolute ground of all being."

Younger New England intellectuals such as Emerson, who rejected the "corpse-cold" rationalism of their parent's generation, quickly embraced Marsh's belief that Coleridge provided the philosophical framework for a spiritually reinvigorated religious experience. Fredric Henry Hedge (1805–1890), a student at the University of Göttingen in the late 1810s and a founding member of the Transcendental Club, wrote an 1833 essay on Coleridge that presented the first clear exposition by an American writer of Kant's Critiques and of the post-Kantian philosophies of Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Friedrich Wilhelm Schelling. By 1850 New England was awash in romantic and transcendentalist philosophy and theology. Hedge's literary anthology, Prose Writers of Germany, was followed quickly by the monumental, multivolume Specimens of Foreign Standard Literature, and reviews of British, German, and French romantic writers regularly filled the pages of the Christian Examiner, the Dial, the Harbinger, and other progressive literary and religious periodicals.

Several other important manifestations of mature American romanticism emerged in the antebellum period. In the 1840s perfectionist strands of romantic thought inspired George Ripley (1802–1880), founder of the Dial and a former Unitarian minister, to organize and head the utopian community called Brook Farm in Concord, Massachusetts. Similarly, the social reformers John Humphrey Noyes (1811–1886) and Robert Owens founded, respectively, the Oneida Community in upstate New York and New Harmony in western Indiana. Theodore Parker (1810–1860), a radical Unitarian minister and a devoted student of German philosophy and biblical criticism, stunned Bostonians in the early 1850s with the assertion that an intuited higher moral law took precedence over the recently passed Fugitive Slave Act and the U.S. Constitution. Darker romantic impulses, in turn, drove the writers Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864) and Herman Melville (1819–1891) to explore the more mysterious and irrational recesses of the American psyche and to produce the literary masterworks of the American Renaissance.

See alsoAbolition Societies; Academic and Professional Societies; Bible; Communitarian Movements and Utopian Communities; European Influences: Enlightenment Thought; European Influences: The French Revolution; Fiction; Poetry; Unitarianism and Universalism .


Carafiol, Peter. Transcendent Reason: James Marsh and the Forms of Romantic Thought. Tallahassee: University Presses of Florida, 1982.

Flower, Elizabeth, and Murray G. Murphey. A History of Philosophy in America. Vol. 1. New York: Capricorn Books, 1977.

Long, Orie William. Literary Pioneers: Early American Explorers of European Culture. New York: Russell and Russell, 1963.

Miller, Perry, ed. The Transcendentalists: An Anthology. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979.

Orians, G. Harrison. "The Romance Ferment after Waverley." American Literature 3 (January 1932): 408–431.

Pochmann, Henry A. German Culture in America: Philosophical and Literary Influences, 1600–1900. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1957; Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978.

Thomas, John L. "Romantic Reform in America, 1815–1865." American Quarterly 17, no. 4 (winter 1965): 656–681.

Neil Brody Miller


views updated May 21 2018


Unlike the Enlightenment, a cultural movement that was imported into Russia from the West and thus, in the words of the poet Alexander Pushkin, "moored on the banks of the conquered Neva" (referring to the river that flows through St. Petersburg), Romanticism had a more indigenous quality, building on the earlier cultural tradition of sentimentalism. The awakening of the heart experienced by Russian society in the second half of the eighteenth century resulted in an oversensitive, reflective personalitya type that persisted in the next generation and evolved into the superfluous man epitomized by Pushkin in the character of Eugene Onegin in the poem of the same name, and by Mikhail Lermontov in Pechorin, the protagonist of A Hero of Our Time. The full-fledged Romantic type was born in Russia during the reign of Alexander I (18011825), which witnessed Napoleon's invasion and subsequent fall and the Russian army's triumphant entry into Paris. These cataclysmic events powerfully enhanced, in the conscience of a sensitive generation, a fatalistic conception of change to which both kingdoms and persons are subjecta conception shared by Alexander. At the same time, an idea of freedom and happiness "within ourselves"notwithstanding the doom of external realitywas put forward with unprecedented strength. The Alexandrine age saw an extraordinary burst of creativity, especially in literature.

western influences

Russian Romanticism was strongly influenced by cultural developments in the West. Vasily Zhukovsky's masterly translations and adaptations from German poetry are representative of the transitional 1800s and early 1810s. Later, British literary influence became dominant. "It seems that, in the present age, a poet cannot but echo Byron, as well as a novelist cannot but echo W. Scott, notwithstanding the magnitude and even originality of talent," wrote the poet and critic Peter Vyazemsky in 1827. More philosophical authors such as Vladimir F. Odoyevsky persistently looked to German thought for inspiration; Schelling was particularly important. The evolution of French literature was also keenly followed: Victor Hugo (but hardly the dreamy Lamartine) aroused much sympathy in the Russian Romantics. A seminal event was the sojourn in St. Petersburg and Moscow of the exiled Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz. However, the study of European models only convinced Russian authors and critics that Romanticism necessarily implied originality. "Conditioned by the desire to realize the creative originality of the human soul," Romanticism owes its formation "not just to every individual nation, but, what is more, to every individual author," wrote Nikolai Polevoy, a leading figure in the Russian Romantic movement. Characteristically, Pushkin struggled to dispel the image of Russian Byron, while Lermontov explicitly declared his non-Byronism.


The Russian Romantic movement consolidated. In the late 1810s, the ClassicRomantic controversy broke out, continuing throughout the 1820s and 1830s. Russian literary journals took sides. Academic circles, too, were engaged in the controversy: Nikolai Nadezhdin's Latin dissertation on Romantic poetry is a case in point. The Classicists claimed that Romanticism sought anarchy in literature and in the fine arts, whereas "Art, generally, is obedience to rules." Indeed, the Romantics, especially in their poetic declarations, blissfully proclaimed the lawlessness of artistic creation. In theoretical discussions, however, they did not simply reject the classical rigidities, but undertook to formulate alternative laws, loosely, those of nature, beauty, and truth. A more specific agreement was difficult to reach, not just on specific issues such as the principles of Romantic drama, but also on the very meaning of Romanticism. Vladimir Nabokov has identified at least eleven various interpretations of "Romantic" current in Pushkin's time. As might be expected, the internal controversy emerged in the Romantic camp. The polemics, piercing other than purely theoretical issues, often involved angry exchanges. Literary alliances were vulnerable, as in the case of Pushkin and Nikolai Polevoy. Yet, the early nineteenth century witnessed a remarkable tendency, on the part of the authors, artists, and musicians, to form circles, attend salons, and group around enlightened patrons.

crossing borders

In this kind of atmosphere, crossing of borders between different arts was common. Vasily Zhukovsky produced brilliant drawings; Lermontov nearly abandoned writing for the sake of painting; Vladimir Odoyevsky was a musicologist as well as a poet and novelist; the playwright Alexander Griboyedov, a talented composer. As art historian Valery Turchin points out, it was the musician rather than the poet who was eventually promoted, in the view of the Romantics, to the role of the supreme type of artistic genius. This precisely reflected the Romantics' quest for the spiritual, for music, of all the arts, was considered the least bound by materiality. Arguably, Romanticism was a later phenomenon in Russian music than in literature and art. Anyway, a contemporary of Pushkin, the composer Mikhail Glinka, renowned for his use of Russian folk tradition, was a major contributor to the Romantic movement. The painter Orestes Kiprensky commenced his series of Romantic portraits during the very dawn of literary Romanticism. Somewhat later emerged the Romantic schools of landscape and historical painting. Even in architecture, the art most strongly bound by matter, new trends showed up against the neoclassical background: neogothicism, exotic orientalism, and, finally, the national current exemplified in Konstantin Ton's churches. During the reign of Nicholas I (18251855) Romanticism began to be diffused in the more general quest for history and nationality.


The important offshoot of this development was Slavophilism. Nicholas I typified the new epoch in the same way as Alexander I had typified the previous age. In his youth, Nicholas had received a largely Romantic education. He was an admirer of Walter Scott and was inclined to imitate the kings of Scott's novels. Characteristically, Pushkin, during the reign of Nicholas, persistently returns to the twin themes of nobility and ancestry, lamenting (in a manner closely resembling Edmund Burke) the passing of the age of chivalry. The dominant mood of the period, however, was nationalistic and messianic, and here again the Romantics largely shared the inclinations of the tsar. Notably, it was Peter Vyazemsky who coined the word narodnost (the Russian equivalent of "nationality"), which became part of the official ideological formula ("Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality"). Odoevsky argued that because of their "poetic organization," the Russian people would attain superiority over the West even in scientific matters. Pushkin welcomed the suppression of the Polish uprising of 1831, interpreting it in Panslavic terms. Nonetheless, there was an unbridgeable psychological rift between the tsar and the Romantic camp, which had its origin in the catastrophe of December 1825. Several of the Decembrists (most importantly, Kondraty Ryleyev, one of the five executed) were men of letters and members of the Romantic movement. Throughout the reign, a creative personality faced fierce censorship and remained under the threat of persecution. Many could say with Polevoy (whose ambitious Romantic enterprise embraced, beside literature, history and even economics, but whose Moscow Telegraph, Russia's most successful literary journal, was closed by the government): "My dreams remained unfulfilled, my ideals, unexpressed." The split between ideal and reality was the central problem for Romanticism universally, but in Russia this problem acquired a specifically bleak character.

See also: golden age of russian literature; lermontov, mikhail yurievich; odoyevsky, vladimir fyodorovich; pushkin, alexander sergeyevich; slavophiles; zhukovsky; vasily andreyevich


McLaughlin, Sigrid (1972). "Russia: RomanicČeskij-RomanticČeskij-Romantizm." In "Romantic" and Its Cognates: The European History of a Word, ed. Hans Eichner. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Peer, Larry H. (1998). "Pushkin and Romantizm," In Comparative Romanticisms: Power, Gender, Subjectivity, ed. Larry H. Peer and Diane Long Hoeveler. Columbia, SC: Camden House.

Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. (1992). The Emergence of Romanticism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rydel, Christine, ed. (1984). The Ardis Anthology of Russian Romanticism. Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis.

Yuri Tulupenko


views updated May 14 2018

Romanticism was a European phenomenon, at its height in Britain from 1785 to 1825, a movement of all the arts, though in England literature and painting predominantly. In its modern sense, the term seems to have originated in Germany, by association with romance languages and the characteristics of medieval romance. For Goethe and Schiller it signalled our alienation from the order and harmony of an earlier classical world, the resultant melancholy one of its most representative tones.

Coleridge used the word in recalling his aims for Lyrical Ballads in 1798. He was to procure a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ for ‘persons and characters supernatural’. A taste for supernatural terrors had already been exploited by the novelists Horace Walpole and Matthew Lewis. The poets learned from them. Wordsworth's contribution to Lyrical Ballads illustrates another aspect of the Romantic impulse. In the 1800 preface, the manifesto of English Romanticism, he investigated the relationship between language and nature as Herder had done before him, though the German took his inspiration from the supposedly more ‘natural’ genius of the early English writers. Later, constable recommended that the painter seek perfection ‘at its primitive source, nature’. The appeal of the ballad, stimulated by Percy's Reliques (1765), lay in its folk form; the sophisticated Wordsworth imitated its simplicity, but his interest in ‘low and rustic life’ was more than aesthetic. Poetry and politics went hand in hand. Hazlitt suggested that ‘this school of poetry had its origins in the French Revolution, or rather in the sentiments and opinions which produced that revolution’. Blake shared his friend Tom Paine's antipathy to ‘Priestcraft and Tyranny’, and where direct action was suppressed, it surfaced in verse.

In claiming that ‘passion speaks truer than reason’ Hazlitt echoed Rousseau, founding father of the movement with its new emphasis on subjectivity and emotion. ‘The way to all mysteries heads inward’, wrote Brandes in the year Wordsworth chose the growth of his own mind as a subject for epic. In his notebook, Coleridge recorded that ‘in looking at objects of nature … I seem to be seeking a symbolical language for something within me that already and forever exists’.

Increasingly the 18th cent. was dismissed as an age of prose. Blake's quarrel with Sir Joshua Reynolds lent an edge to his work as an engraver, his ‘wiry bounding line’ challenging the ideals of the Academy. Turner followed Wordsworth to the Alps, while his extraordinary Rain, Steam and Speed looks to the future. In arguing that ‘if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to the tree it had better not come at all’, Keats illustrates the cult of spontaneity and of organic metaphor.

The displacement of reason by imagination as the faculty by which the truth is apprehended was a commonplace of the period. Coleridge's famous definition of it as ‘the living power and prime agent of all human perception’ owes a good deal to Kant and Schelling, but there was always a certain native resistance to German metaphysics. The second generation of Romantics had other priorities; Keats questioned Wordsworth's cultivation of ‘the egotistical sublime’, while for Shelley Wordsworth had betrayed the hopes of the Revolution. As that Revolution receded, and young radicals became old Tories, the dynamism of the movement was dispersed or transmuted, though its currents can be felt into the present century.

John Saunders


views updated May 21 2018

Romanticism. Late-C18 and early C19 artistic forward, including the beak-head, billet, movement, its many variations and strands cable, chevron, double cone, nebule, and defying any neat definition. The one character-reversed zig-zag. istic found throughout its sundry manifestations was the insistence on individual experience, intuition, instinct, and emotion. Commonly perceived as a reaction against the rationalism of the Enlightenment, Classicism, and Neo-Classicism, it nevertheless shared with Classicism reverence for the ideal, transcending reality, hence the term Romantic Classicism applied to works displaying a Romantic response to the Antique. A perfect Ancient Greek temple in its pristine state would be Classical, but a ruined Greek temple, though Classical in one sense, cannot be Classical in another because it is broken, incomplete, partial, and in ruins. Such a ruin might, however, be perceived as beautiful, and so a Classical building constructed as a ‘ruin’ in an C18 garden could be described as an example of Romantic Classicism. Asymmetrical compositions set in the context of the Picturesque often are purely Classical in detail, such as Schinkel's exquisite buildings at Potsdam (Charlottenhof and the Roman Baths complex), and so can be classed as examples of Romantic Classicism.

Form, in Romantic art, was determined by the inner idea within the subject represented, and the yearning for spirituality and inner meaning allied Romanticism with medievalism, Historicism, the Picturesque, the Gothic Revival, and the Sublime. A new tenderness towards the dead, a love of melancholy, and the cultivation of feelings were characteristics of Romanticism, creating elegiac gardens, the first cemeteries, and fuelling the religious revival that was such an important part of C19 European and American culture.


Chilvers, Osborne, & Farr (eds.) (1988);
Clay (1981);
J. Curl (2002a);
Honour (1979);
H. O. (1970);
Jane Turner (1996)