- Is Romanticism Necessary?
The first issue of the Keats-Shelley Journal appeared in 1952, a time—like now—of uncertainty for Romanticism in both the academy and the culture at large. Critics were working hard to defend Romantic modes of thought against serious longstanding charges. As Jacques Barzun writes of that era,
In [the] two decades before the second world war, the nineteenth-century was considered a regrettable interlude with but a few isolated figures to redeem it. The early, or Romantic part of that century was held in particular detestation and contempt: it was naïve, silly, wrongheaded, stupidly passionate, criminally hopeful, and intolerably rhetorical. … This was the teaching alike of the universities and the literary journals.1
Worse was to come, as the Romantic idealisms supposedly demolished by the First World War were then held responsible for the Second. Early in the century, Irving Babbitt had argued that Romantic thinking leads to either anarchy or despotism, both functions of emotional intoxication and the promotion of individual impulse.2 Babbitt's view held sway as the lamps were going out again all over Europe, and Romantic poetry and its agendas were sinking downward to darkness. Associated with irrationality, hero-worship, nationalism, and the glorification of power, Romanticism was worse than naïve and silly: it was a dangerous ideology. By the late 1940s, Romanticism had reached a kind of nadir, seen as either hopelessly confused or morally repugnant, and the term seemed poised to solidify into a general term of abuse.
In response came a series of influential studies (by Barzun, Walter Jackson Bate, Morse Peckham, Robert Langbaum, and others), the most moving of which is perhaps René Wellek's 1949 essay that emphasized [End Page 175] the unity of European Romanticisms, examining with an even hand the literary traditions of many nations of the war-torn continent to demonstrate their core consistency, their shared cultural heritage.3 Imagination, nature, and symbol: Wellek's well-known terms for the Romantic commonwealth were offered implicitly as grounds for rebuilding postwar Europe. In a related vein, Barzun argued that the Romantic imagination could show us how "to create a new world on the ruins of the old" (Classic, 14). Looking at the remainder of that century, we can trace the influence of Romanticism on sixties counterculture and the civil rights, women's, anti-war, and environmental movements that had their origins in new imaginations of the world. Academic Romanticism rose along with the postwar boom in college enrollment and the popularity and prestige of the English major during the latter decades of the century. Our modern memory of Romanticism is this story of redemption.
Now what? The daily news makes clear that Romanticism didn't save the world, or even the profession, both of which on some days seem near the point of collapse. The cycles of revolution and reaction continue at scales from the global to the personal. With luck, people may still find Romantic poems to be handbooks of loss and recompense, but is that enough? Does anyone still need Romanticism, and why? What work is left for the Romantics that only they can perform? Can anything like Wellek's or Barzun's ambitious faith in the humanizing, creative power of Romanticism be held and passed on? In other words, is there any value in reclaiming the Romantic ideology? These seem to me the most urgent questions facing scholars and teachers of Romanticism. Maybe they always were. [End Page 176]
Andrew Stauffer is Associate Professor of English at the University of Virginia and the author, most recently, of Book Traces: Nineteenth-Century Readers and the Future of the Library (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020).
1. Jacques Barzun, Classic, Romantic, and Modern, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), xv–xvii. Hereafter, Classic.
2. Irving Babbitt, Rousseau and Romanticism (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1919).
3. Jacques Barzun, Romanticism and the Modern Ego (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1943); Walter Jackson Bate, From Classic to Romantic (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1946); Morse Peckham, "Toward a Theory of Romanticism," PMLA 66.2 (March 1951), 5–23; Robert Langbaum, The Poetry of Experience (New...