- The Two Romanticisms, and Other Essays: Mystery and Interpretation in Romantic Literature by William Christie
In The Two Romanticisms, William Christie provides an introduction to Romanticism, aimed at senior school students and undergraduates, focusing on canonical writings by Austen, Byron, Coleridge, Keats, Mary and Percy Shelley and Wordsworth. As an expert on Romantic-era literary reviews, a biographer of both Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Dylan Thomas, an editor of Francis Jeffrey's correspondence, and a teacher of Romanticism for many years, Christie is ideally placed for this task.
Christie proposes that we view Romanticism as two distinctive tendencies. The first, which Christie labels 'small "r" romantic', comprises works that are 'exotic, remote in time or place, strange, fabulous, extravagant, improbable, unrealistic', exemplified by 'the Gothic; graveyard poetry; Bardism and Druidism and Celticism; Medievalism; Orientalism'. The second, 'capital "r" romantic' indicates writing that engages with 'the idea of a vitally creative human imagination in collaborative relation to a sublime and/or beautiful natural world'. If we follow Christie's model, we could say that Lord Byron's fascination with foreign lands is 'small 'r' romantic' but his egalitarian political aspirations 'capital 'r' romantic'.
Indeed, according to Christie, Byron epitomises the dualistic nature of Romanticism in his agitated oscillation between idealism and cynicism. Christie observes that 'Byron is always careful to identify beneath the hardened, cynical exterior of his Byronic hero the disappointed idealist' and detects in the poet a 'characteristically Romantic mixture of sympathetic egalitarianism and arrogant spiritual elitism'. Christie recommends Don Juan as Byron's paradigmatic poem, asserting that its originality lies in its inconsistency: 'Byron makes a unifying theme […] out of the poem's disunity'. [End Page 90]
In keeping with his emphasis upon Byron and Romanticism's duality, Christie also draws attention to Percy Bysshe Shelley's poetic portrait of Byron and himself Julian and Maddalo: A Conversation. Christie characterises 'Shelley's […] metapoem for Byron' as a verse operating on two levels. The first—'what Shelley is saying with Byron'—consists of Shelley's use of Byron to communicate ideas to a general audience. The second—'what Shelley is saying to Byron'—comprises the conversation Shelley is having with Byron within the poem. Christie argues that Shelley's representation of Byron recognises the senior poet's double persona, registering 'a paradoxical split between Maddalo's public pessimism and private warmth and generosity'.
In other chapters, Christie extends further his binary model of Romanticism. He presents Austen's Pride and Prejudice as an unresolved dialogue between 'two, discrepant perspectives or positions—one progressive, the other conservative'. Similarly, Christie typifies Wordsworth's 'Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey' as a debate between self-doubt and affirmation, describing the poem as an attempt 'to convert depression into self-possession and loss into power and transcendence'. And in a particularly lucid explication, Christie interprets 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' as a struggle between chaos and order. He asserts that 'The Rime […] is […] about the need to reduce the mysterious and the irrational and the arbitrary in our world […] to something manageable and ordered'.
One obvious objection to Christie's approach is that this dualistic procedure is too narrow, overlooking the diversity and richness of different Romanticisms. As Christie observes, even for A.O. Lovejoy 'the meanings of the word "Romanticism" in current usage in the 1920s were so many and so various, and at times so mutually incompatible, as effectively to render it meaningless'. Moreover, Christie's limited canon of Romantic writings not only overlooks numerous vital and essential writers, it also fails to acquaint the novice student with most of the topics—gender, race, nationalism, globalisation and the impact of print to name but a few—that have animated Romantic studies over the past thirty years or so and demonstrated the literature of the period's continued relevance today. In particular, the lack of explicit justification for the selection of texts may baffle the novice, especially since they are likely to be reading Christie...