- The Romantic Generation, If It Existed. A review of Currents and Eddies in the English Romantic Generation, by Frederick E. Pierce
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[ 77 The Romantic Generation, If It Existed A review of Currents and Eddies in the English Romantic Generation, by Frederick E. Pierce New Haven: Yale UP; London: Milford, 1918. Pp. 342. The Athenaeum, 4655 (18 July 1919) 616-17 To anyone who is interested to know what a past generation liked, and why they liked it, a book of careful and intelligent scholarship such as Mr. Pierce’s is instructive.1 It is illuminating to learn that the Great Foreign Dramatist of 1800 was – Kotzebue; that the Epics of Southey were confidently expected by educated men of letters to compete with those of – Milton and Klopstock; that Dante was altogether unacceptable in England until he was carried over by the strong wave of Ariosto, Boiardo and Pulci.2 Mr. Pierce’s patient accumulation of little facts suggests many questions of general importance, and perhaps provides answers to some of the questions . It exhibits the Romantic Period as a period of intellectual chaos; it leads us to speculate whether the age, as an age, can ever exert much influence upon any age to come; and it provokes the suspicion that our own age may be similarly chaotic and ineffectual. The period 1788-1832 was a period hungry for novelty; and its hunger exceeded its strength of digestion. When we remember the Ossianic (or Neo-Celtic) bubble, the Rowley poems, the Castle of Otranto, we must put the date earlier.3 The latter part of the eighteenth century was a period of intellectual and emotional debility: what we mean by the phrase “eighteenth century” is really a synopsis of the best in literature, art and society for a hundred years. The food of 1790 was the sonnets of Charlotte Smith, the sonnets of Coleridge’s “divine Bowles”; Cowper’s Task; the Louisa of Anne Seward, the Swan of Lichfield.4 To a public ignorant of other provender than this, the feeblest emotion, when it appeared, might seem strong, and the falsest emotion might seem genuine. But the sentiment of the eighteenth century continued; and as we pass from Ann Radcliffe and Rogers to Moore and to Byron’s early romances there is no interruption of feeling.5 In the work of Rogers we find the link connecting the pernicious sentiment 1919 78 ] of the eighteenth with that of the nineteenth century; connecting Gray6† and Goldsmith with Byron: the stern grandeur of a Gothic tower . . . All, all escaped – but ere the lover bore His faint and faded Julia to the shore . . . But can the wiles of Art, the grasp of Power, Snatch the rich relics of a well-spent hour? . . .7 Such lines recall either “Childe Harold” or the “Country Churchyard.” At the end of the eighteenth century there were already several distinct groups of literati: there was the Scotch group, with Edinburgh as its capital, and Scott soon to be its head; there was the Holland House or fashionableliterary group; and there was the Cottle group in Bristol, consisting of Coleridge, Southey and Wordsworth. The Scotch group was antiquarian, and collected Border Ballads; it continued, with greater accuracy, the mediaevalism of Walpole and Mrs. Radcliffe.8 The Holland House group, gathered about Lord Holland and Charles Fox, was urban; it managed to combine the tradition of Pope with the mediaeval, the Werther melancholic , and the Near East romantic; it was also neo-classic, and its Laureate Rogers imitated the Parthenon frieze around his staircase.9 It probably provided the best conversation. The Bristol group is defined in its interests by the preface to the Lyrical Ballads; it read Rousseau, was excited by the French Revolution, admired Schiller and Goethe, Herder, Bürger and Klopstock.10 Through Southey it was also in contact with Taylor of Norwich (mentioned in Lavengro), the great popularizer of German literature.11 These three groups comprise nearly everybody of importance up to about 1815. In none of them is there enough to mark a revolution from the later eighteenth century – neither the earlier Scott nor the earlier Byron (who may be associated loosely with the Holland House group); and the only figure of continuing influence is Wordsworth. After 1815 a new group – London, middle-class, but reaching toward Italy – appears around Leigh Hunt. There for the first time were musicians; also painters, though no better than Haydon and Severn; there were Hazlitt, Lamb, Shelley, Keats, Cowden Clarke, even Peacock. They inhabited Hampstead and Highgate; they admired the Elgin marbles; they listened at the Portuguese Chapel to Mozart and...