Historians of French and German literature are accustomed to set off a period, or a division of their subject, and entitle it “Romanticism" or “the Romantic School.” Writers of English literary history, while recognizing the importance of England's share in this great movement in European letters, have not generally accorded it a place by itself in the arrangement of their subject-matter, but have treated it cursively, as a tendency present in the work of individual authors; and have maintained a simple chronological division of eras into the “Georgian,”, the “Victorian,” etc. The reason of this is perhaps to be found in the fact that, although Romanticism began earlier in England than on the Continent and lent quite as much as it borrowed in the international exchange of literary commodities, the native movement was more gradual and scattered. It never reached so compact a shape, or came so definitely to a head, as in Germany or France. There never was precisely a “romantic school” or an all-pervading romantic fashion in England.
There is, therefore, nothing in English corresponding to Heine's fascinating sketch “Die Romantische Schule,” or to Theophile Gautier's almost equally fascinating and far more sympathetic “Histoire du Romantisme.” If we can imagine a composite personality of Byron and De Quincey, putting on record his half affectionate and half satirical reminiscences of the contemporary literary movement, we might have something nearly equivalent. For Byron, like Heine, was a repentant romanticist, with “radical notions under his cap,” and a critical theory at odds with his practice; while De Quincey was an early disciple of Wordsworth and Coleridge,—as Gautier was of Victor Hugo,—and at the same time a clever and slightly mischievous sketcher of personal traits.
The present volume consists, in substance, of a series of lectures given in elective courses in Yale College. In revising it for publication I have striven to rid it of the air of the lecture room, but a few repetitions and didacticisms of manner may have inadvertently been left in. Some of the methods and results of these studies have already been given to the public in “The Beginnings of the English Romantic Movement,” by my present associate and former scholar, Professor William Lyon Phelps. Professor Phelps' little book (originally a doctorate thesis) follows, in the main, the selection and arrangement of topics in my lectures. En revanche I have had the advantage of availing myself of his independent researches on points which I have touched but slightly; and particularly of his very full treatment of the Spenserian imitations.
I had at first intended to entitle the book “Chapters toward a History of English Romanticism, etc.”; for, though fairly complete in treatment, it makes no claim to being exhaustive. By no means every eighteenth-century writer whose work exhibits romantic motives is here passed in review. That very singular genius William Blake, e.g., in whom the influence of “Ossian,” among other things, is so strongly apparent, I leave untouched; because his writings—partly by reason of their strange manner of publication—were without effect upon their generation and do not form a link in the chain of literary tendency.
If this volume should be favorably received, I hope before very long to publish a companion study of English romanticism in the nineteenth century.
A HISTORY OF ENGLISH ROMANTICISM