Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Romanticism - I

However, though it is by no means clear what romanticism stood for, it is quite evident what it was against: the middle. Whatever its content, it was an extremist creed. Romantic artists or thinkers in the narrower sense are found on the extreme left, like the poet Shelley, on the extreme right, like Chateaubriand and Novalis, leaping from left to right like Wordsworth, Coleridge and numerous disappointed supporters of the French Revolution, leaping from royalism to the extreme left like Victor Hugo, but hardly ever among the moderates or whig-liberals in the rationalist centre, which indeed was the stronghold of 'classicism'. 'I have no respect for the Whigs,' said the old Tory Wordsworth, 'but I have a great deal of the Chartist in me'. [10] 
Romanticism is therefore simply not classifiable as an anti-bourgeois movement. Indeed, in the pre-romanticism of the decades before the French Revolution, many of its characteristic slogans had been used for the glorification of the middle class, whose true and simple, not to say mawkish, feeling had been favourably contrasted with the stiff upper lip of a corrupt society, and whose spontaneous reliance on nature was destined, it was believed, to sweep aside the artifice of court and clericalism. However, once bourgeois society had in fact triumphed in the French and Industrial Revolutions, romanticism unquestionably became its instinctive enemy and can be justly described as such.
No doubt much of its passionate, confused, but profound, revulsion against bourgeois society was due to the vested interest of the two groups which provided its shock-troops: socially displaced young men and professional artists. There had never been a period for young artists, living or dying, like the romantic: the Lyrical Ballads (1798) were the work of men in their twenties, Byron became famous overnight at twenty-four, an age at which Shelley was famous and Keats was almost in his grave. Hugo's poetic career began when he was twenty, Musset's at twenty-three. Schubert wrote Erlkoenig at the age of eighteen and was dead at thirty-one, Delacroix painted the Massacre at Chios at twenty-five, Petoefi published his Poems at twenty-one. An unmade reputation or an unproduced masterpiece by thirty is a rarity among the romantics. Youth - especially intellectual or student youth - was their natural habitat; it was in this period that the Quartier Latin of Paris became, for the first time since the middle ages, not merely a place where the Sorbonne was, but a cultural (and political) concept. [...]
So, to an even greater extent, did the alienation of the artist who reacted to it by turning himself into 'the genius', one of the most characteristic inventions of the romantic era. Where the social function of the artist is clear, his relation to the public direct, the question of what he is to say and how to say it answered by tradition, morality, reason or some other accepted standard, an artist may be a genius, but rarely behaved like one. [...]
The real problem was that of the artist cut off from a recognizable function, patron or public and left to cast his soul as a commodity upon a blind market, to be bought or not; or to work within a system of patronage which would generally have been economically untenable even if the French Revolution had not abolished its human indignity. The artist therefore stood alone, shouting into the night, uncertain even of an echo. It was only natural that he should turn himself into the genius, who created what was within him, regardless of the world and in defiance of a public whose only right was to accept him on his own terms or not at all. At best he expected to be understood, like Stendhal, by the chosen few or some undefined posterity; at worst he would produce unplayable dramas, like Grabbe - or even Goethe's Faust part II - or compositions for unrealistically gigantic orchestras like Berlioz; or else he would go mad like Hölderlin, Grabbe, de Nerval and several others. [...]
Precise social analysis was never the romantic forte, and indeed they distrusted the confident mechanical materialist reasoning of the eighteenth century (symbolized by Newton, the bugbear of both William Blake and Goethe) which they rightly saw as one of the chief tools with which bourgeois society had been built. Consequently we shall not expect them to provide a reasoned critique of bourgeois society, though something like such a critique wrapped in the mystical cloak of 'nature philosophy' and walking amid the swirling clouds of metaphysics did develop within a broadly 'romantic' framework, and contributed, among other schievements, to the philosophy of Hegel.

[1o] E.C. Batho, The Later Wordworth (1931), p.227, see also pp. 46-7, 197-9.

E.J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution (1977), p. 313, pp. 314-7

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