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Henry A. Beers

To attempt at the outset a rigid definition of the word romanticism would be to anticipate the substance of this volume. To furnish an answer to the question—What is, or was, romanticism? or, at least, What is, or was English romanticism?—is one of my main purposes herein, and the reader will be invited to examine a good many literary documents, and to do a certain amount of thinking, before he can form for himself any full and clear notion of the thing. Even then he will hardly find himself prepared to give a dictionary definition or romanticism.

The Romantic Movement in England was a part of the general European reaction against the spirit of the eighteenth century. This began somewhat earlier in England than in Germany, and very much earlier than in France, where literacy conservatism went strangely hand in hand with political radicalism. In England the reaction was at first gradual, timid, and unconscious. It did not reach importance until the seventh decade of the century, and culminated only in the early years of the nineteenth century.

Dissatisfaction with a prevalent mood or fashion in literature is apt to express itself either in a fresh and independent criticism of life, or in a reversion to older types. But, as original creative genius is not always forthcoming, a literary revolution commonly begins with imitation. It seeks inspiration in the past, and substitutes a new set of models as different as possible from those which it finds currently followed. In every country of Europe the classical tradition had hidden whatever was most national, most individual, in its earlier culture, under a smooth, uniform veneer.

There is nothing necessarily romantic in literature that concerns itself with rural life or natural scenery. Yet we may accept, with some qualification, the truth of Professor McClintock's statement, that the “beginning and presence of a creative, romantic movement is almost always shown by the love, study, and interpretation of physical nature.”[1] Why this should be true, at all events of the romantic movement that began in the eighteenth century, is obvious enough.

That the influence of Milton, in the romantic revival of the eighteenth century, should have been hardly second in importance to Spenser's is a confirmation of our remark that Augustan literature was “classical” in a way of its own. It is another example of that curiously topsy-turvy condition of things in which rhyme was a mark of the classic, and blank verse of the romantic. For Milton is the most truly classical of English poets; and yet, from the angle of observation at which the eighteenth century viewed him, he appeared a romantic.

In the progress of our inquiries, hitherto, we have met with little that can be called romantic in the narrowest sense. Though the literary movement had already begun to take a retrospective turn, few distinctly mediaeval elements were yet in evidence. Neither the literature of the monk nor the literature of the knight had suffered resurrection. It was not until about 1760 that writers began to gravitate decidedly toward the Middle Ages.

One of Thomas Warton's sonnets was addressed to Richard Hurd, afterward Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry, and later of Worcester. Hurd was a friend of Gray and Mason, and his “Letters on Chivalry and Romance” (1762) helped to initiate the romantic movement. They perhaps owed their inspiration, in part, to Sainte Palaye's “Memoires sur l'ancienne Chevalerie,” the first volume of which was issued in 1759, though the third and concluding volume appeared only in 1781.

The regeneration of English poetic style at the close of the last century came from an unexpected quarter. What scholars and professional men of letters had sought to do by their imitations of Spenser and Milton, and their domestication of the Gothic and the Celtic muse, was much more effectually done by Percy and the ballad collectors. What they had sought to do was to recall British poetry to the walks of imagination and to older and better models than Dryden and Pope. But they could not jump off their own shadows: the eighteenth century was too much for them.

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