Romanticism and Genre, Theory and Practice
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Romanticism and Genre, Theory and Practice
David Duff. Romanticism and the Uses of Genre (Oxford: Oxford Univ., 2009). Pp. xi + 256. $99

For a generation now scholars have treated literature as an epiphenomenon of matters sociological, linguistic, or psychological, but we see indications of a coming formalism whose exponents are more cognizant of the qualities that make literature literature—that which in a poem or essay or novel distinguishes it from other forms of discourse, even when it is construed as a social or linguistic or psychological artifact.

New Critics were little interested in genre, regarding aesthetic objects independently of sources, social functions, and means of production; their very formal construction was taken to be organic and self-referential. That kind of formalism, quite as much as the critical modes that replaced it, was reductive. In a rehabilitated formalism, genre theory might treat literature as literature, as one among other forms of discourse in an evolving and complex system of genres.

The title of David Duff ’s new study is slightly misleading; it could have been called Romanticism and the Uses of Genre Theory, because poems and novels (almost always poems) are brought into the discussion to illustrate theories of [End Page 128] genre embraced by romantic writers and critics, which, in turn, are juxtaposed with what later critics have had to say about genre and romanticism:

The very word “Romantic” derives from the name of a literary genre, and one of the earliest and commonest definitions of Romanticism consists simply of the tautological claim that it was a “revival of romance.” Other definitions have linked it to the ascendancy of lyric, the birth of the “historical novel” and “national tale,” the rise of autobiography, or the emergence of some other literary form that is held to epitomize the artistic temper of the movement. Such definitions have, however, coexisted with a virtually opposite claim which, until recently, carried an even stronger interpretative hold. This is what I call the anti-generic hypothesis, the belief that Romanticism was fundamentally hostile to genre, or interested in genres only for the purposes of dissolving or transcending them.


In a wide-ranging argument, Duff demonstrates that anti-generic criticism, such as one finds in the New Criticism, has a source in romantic writers themselves, many of whom scorned literary genres as misguided constraints imposed by an outmoded French neoclassicism. Others, often the same persons writing on different occasions, had more positive things to say about genre. Indeed, the romantics were all over the map with respect to genre, a situation not unusual, one might add, for genre is a complicated business. It is a mistake to discount the importance of genre to romantic literature because, whether notions of genre were being rejected, embraced, or invented, genre was a matter of abiding concern to romantic writers.

That is genre, but not necessarily genre theory, for then as now English speakers were more concerned with practical criticism: “There is thus no real equivalent to the philosophical genre theory of German Romanticism” (9). The Germans, among them Goethe, Schelling, and the Schlegels, figure in as indicators of what was happening across the channel in British literature, predecessors of Bakhtin and the Russian formalists, and forerunners of present practice. That earlier body of continental theory does not amount to a consistent program, but does indicate the “uses” to which the study of genre can be put: examining the relationships of literary works to authors, social norms, historical change, to other works of literature, and to kinds of literature.

Duff’s first chapter, “The Old Imperial Code,” takes up the “transition from neoclassicism to Romanticism,” arguing that it is misleading to conceive of this “simply in terms of a liberation from the concept of rules” (45). Neoclassical genre theory survived in the often-strained classificatory schemes found in anthologies of the romantic era and in the writings of critics. But, Duff argues, it is a mistake to concentrate too much on tyrannical rules, because the transition had more to do with reorienting poetry from mimetic to expressive [End Page 129] approaches. Innovative aesthetic theories might involve their own rules and classificatory schemes.

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