Chief Characteristics Of Romantic Criticism

The Rise of Romantic Criticism:

The awakening of sensibility is the most radical change that comes over the English literary scene about the middle of the 18th century. “Sensibility primarily means the power of generation or perception, but this meaning has become over- laid with another, that of quickness and acuteness of apprehension or feeling. Which in turn was extended, during the 18th century, to mean the capacity for refined emotion, sensitiveness generally in the face of external nature, and the readiness to feel for the poor and the suffering. Rationalism which had prevailed during the Augustan era, and the order. discipline, and respect for tradition and authority which the Augustans had inculcated, no longer satisfied. The commonly held assumptions about man, God and society, were breaking down, and the writers were thrown back on their own reactions and responses to the facts of life. Reason had failed to answer the fundamental questions about the mystery of life. and so stress shifted to emotion and imagination as safer guides to truth. Sensibility, in its various manifestations, was the contemporary expression of what Johnson called, “that hunger of the imagination which preys incessantly on life.” This awakening of sensibility accounts for the change that comes both over literature and literary inquiry in the later half of the 18th century. The neo-classical dogma is felt to be too cramping and narrow, and writers turn to a freer mode of self-expression.

Its Causes:

Love of Liberty is ingrained in the English temperament. Hence it is that the English could not servilely follow for any length of time the neo-classical rules. Englishmen are too individualistic for any slavish imitation. As under current of liberalism is noticeable even at a time when neo-classicism was at its height.

This temperamental leaning towards liberalism was fed and nourished by Longinus whose essay, “On The Sublime”, had been translated into French towards the close of the 17th century and was widely read in England. His emphasis on ‘transport and enthusiasm had a far reaching impact both on creative and critical literature. The French Revolution and the American War independence led to the rise of the spirit of free thinking love of political independence led to the rise of the spirit of free inquiry. The Pseudo-classical rules were questioned and their limitations exposed. Writers liked to create unhampered by rules and conventions. and the critics to judge according to their own light.

The medevialisation movement about the middle of the 18th century. led to a revival of interest in old English masters. The reputation of Spenser and Shakespeare increased and that of Pope and others went down. There was fresh thinking on the subject of literary appreciation. Under German influence there was rethinking on the nature of Beauty and aesthetic appeal. and a new aesthetics was thus developed.

There was also the growth of a new historical outlook following the publication of Gibbon’s monumental work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Literature, ancient, medieval and modern was viewed as a whole. This enlarged the horizon and widened the outlook. The rise of romantic criticism was also helped by the Reviews. The Reviewers judged works of literature on the basis of their own likes and dislikes and not on the basis of rules. No doubt, much of their criticism is prejudiced. but they paved the way for the rise of impressionism and individualism which is the keynote of romantic criticism.

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Increasingly men of genius, like Wordsworth and Coleridge, voiced their protest against Neo-classicism and through their critical pronouncement laid the foundations of romantic criticism. They gave a definite programme and consciousness to the romantic movement.

Thus under the superficial calm of the 18th century, new forces were brewing, an under-current of change was flowing, which burst into life with the publication of Wordsworth’s Preface to the Lyrical Ballads. Hence it is true to say. as Atkins points out, that the foundations of 19th  century criticism were laid in the 18th century.

Romantic Criticism:

Its Chief Features: The chief features of the new school of romantic criticism may be summarised as follows:

  1. Romantic criticism ignores rules whether of Aristotle or Horace or of the French, and emphasises that works of literature are to be judged.on the basis of the impression they produce, and not with reference to any rules. It is impressionistic, and individualistic, and freedom of inquiry is its keynote.
  2. It is concerned with the fundamentais, such as the nature of poetry, and its functions, and not merely with the problems of style, diction or literary genres. It is neither legislative nor judicial. It is concerned, mainly with the theory of poetry, and the process of poetic creation.
  3. Emphasis is laid on imagination and emotion and not on reason and good sense. Poetic enthusiasm is no longer looked down upon, as by the Neo-classics.
  4. New definitions of poetry are attempted Poetry is no longer considered as mere imitation or invention but becomes the expression of emotion and imagination. Inspiration and intuition, rather than adherence to rules, are regarded as the true basis of creation. No earlier English critic, except Sidney (and he too only in passing) had examined such fundamental questions.
  5. Pleasure rather than instruction becomes the end or function of poetry: “If poetry instructs, it does so only through pleasure” (Coleridge). Poetry should transport and make people ‘nobler’ and ‘better’ through such transport. Its appeal should be to the heart and not to the head.
  6. Imagination is emphasised both as the basis of creation and of judgement on what is created. It is imagination which leads to the production of great work of art. Shakespeare is great because his works are the product of imagination. Pope is not great as he is deficient in this respect. The critic also must primarily be gifted with imagination; only then can he appreciate the beauty of a work of art. He must enter imaginatively into the spirit of a work of art.
  7. Views on poetic diction and versification undergo a radical change.. Simplicity is emphasised both in theme and treatment.
  8. Romantic criticism is creative. It is as much the result of imagination as works of literature. Critics express their views after entering imaginatively into the thoughts and feelings of the writers whose works they may be examining.
  9. The influence of Wordsworth and Coleridge was far reaching Wordsworth’s Preface To The Lyrical Ballads is an unofficial manifesto of the Romantic movement, for it throws out hints and makes suggestions which capture the imagination, and which lead to the rise of the romantic criticism in the early decades of the next century. Wordsworth was the first in many fields, he stimulated interest and controversy, and so brought about fundamental changes both in romantic theory and practice. He is the first theorist of the romantic movement, and the credit of having given a particular shape and direction to English romantic criticism must go to him. By his emphasis on simplicity both in theme and treatment he conquered new territories for poetry and so enlarged the domain both of theory and practice of literature. By his emphasis on emotion and imagination he gave back to English poetry the stuff which properly belongs to it, and in this way revolutionized literary concepts. he demolished much that was false and injurious in English critical tradition, so that literary criticism in England could breathe a larger and freer atmosphere English criticism and poetry-could never be the same after Wordsworth had written. To his influence was added that of Coleridge and other romantic critics, and by the opening decades of the 19th century the revolution was complete. Neo-classicism had had its day in England; now it was a thing of the past. The future lay with the new criticism- the romantic criticism-of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley and many others.


In the end, we give George Saintsbury’s summary of the main features of romantic criticism;

All periods of literature are to be studied, and all have lessons for the critic “Gothic ignorance” is an ignorant absurdity.

One period of literature cannot prescribe to another. Each has its own laws; and if any general laws are to be put above these, they must be such as will embrace them.

Rules are not to be multiplied without necessity, and such as may be admitted must rather be extracted from the practice of good poets and prose-writers rather than imposed upon it.

“Unity” is not itself uniform, but will vary according to the kind. and sometimes, within the kind itself.

The kind itself is not to be too rigidly constituted; and sub-varieties in it may constantly arise.

The object of literature is Delight, its soul is imagination; its body is style.

A man should like what he does like; and his likings are facts in criticism for him.

Nothing depends upon the subject; all upon the treatment of the subject.

The first requisite of the critic is that he should be capable of receiving, impressions, the second, that he should be able to express and impart them.



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