Classicism and Romanticism

The two terms Classical and Romantic introduced by Goethe and Chiller, have raised around it a tower of Babel. Much Cacophony is there about them to drive home the points of difference. Many a net was cast by critics to bring them ashore and to fish up the essence, but the real significance of the term includes our grasp. And since neither classicism nor romanticism is found in an absolutely pure state, any discussion of their characteristics will necessarily involve a certain amount of schematic over simplification. Ordinarily ‘Classical’ means Greek and Roman art and literature, and Romantic means medieval, on the other hand. But actually, Classicism and Romanticism do not describe any particular literatures, or particular periods of literary history so much as certain counterbalancing qualities and tendencies which run through the literatures of all countries. There were Romantic writings among the Greek and Romans, and there were Classical writings in the middle ages; and there are Classical and Romantic traits in the same author.

The Greeks saw all their duties in human form. They loved to portray them alive in worship and articism representation. Thus form, outward form, is the first distinctive element in classicism. And this form is invariably accompanied by balance, order, proportion and reserve contrasted with this romanticism tends to emphasize the spirit which lies behind form. It makes constant experiments with forms as the spirit dictates. The first puts stress on “This worldliness” of beauty that we know; the second on its “Other Worldliness”.

The one always seeks a golden mean, the other an emotional extremity. The one satisfies the classic, adventure attracts the romantic. The one appeals to tradition, the other demands exciting novelty. On the one side. The virtues and defects which go with the motions of propriety, proportion, de we may see calm, restraint, authority, on the other we see excitement, curiosity, spirituality. Liberty and provocativeness.

Romantic relates to classic somewhat as music relates to plastic art. Music presents no finished ideal but suggests ideals beyond the capacity of canvas or stone. Plastic art acts on the formal beauty of music and the feelings the one affects us by what is present, the other by what it suggests the one emphasizes definiteness. It indicates nothing beyond what it expresses. It fills the sense, it leaves nothing to imagination. It stands correct, symmetric sharp in outline in the clear light of day. And that is the essential significance of classical art. But romantic poetry painting or architecture is mystical; it took beyond it employs shadows to produce its highest effects-Shadow and colour rather than contour. Distance lends it enchantment.

“Charmed magic Casements opening in the form of precious seas, in faery lands for losn.”

Or, “A savage place! As holy and enchanted, As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted, By woman wailing for her demon lover!”

But in classical poetry there is no violent appeal, nothing surprising, nothing strange, only a direct and inevitable beauty. In the following lines of Wordsworth we may find that sharp classical grace-

“The silence that is in the starrs sky, The sleep that is among the lonely hills”

Classical art moreover, is social and representative. It is the product of a nation and a generator which has consciously achieved a definite advance, moral, political and intellectual and is filled with the belief that its view of life is natural, human wise and universal. It has affected a synthesis which enables it to look round on life with a sense of its wholeness. The work of the artist is to give expression to that consciousness, hence the solidity of his work and hence too its definiteness. The work of the classical artist is to give individual expression the beauty of form, to a body of common sentiments and thoughts which he shares with the audience-thought and views which have for his generation the validity of universal truths. There were three golden periods when such classical art flourished-the age of Pericles in Greece, Augustan Age in Rome, and the age of Louis XIV in France Grierson believes it possible to show three romantic movements in European literature. The first comes to light in the tragedies of Euripides and the dialogues of Plato, the second in Elizabethan Age, and the third in the age Romantic Revival. The points of difference between Classicism and Romanticism will be clear if we compare Racine of the Age of Louis XIV with Shakespeare of the Elizabethan Age. The style used by Racine in Phaedra or in Berenice is remarkable for clarity and elegance for a graceful simplicity and an easy strength. His tragedies are cast in the fine mould of perfect manners majestic without pretension, expressive without emphasis, subtle without affection, Racine’s poetry differs as much from Shakespeare as some calm-flowing river of the plain from a turbulent mountains torrent. When Shakespeare in his tragedies like Macbeth and Othello, wishes to be forceful he almost invariably flies to the gigantic, the unexpected and the out of the way; he searches for strange metaphors and extraordinary constructions; he surprises us with curious mysterious and imaginations we have never dreamed of before. Macbeth murders the king, looks at his bloody hand and expresses his sense of guilt- “Multitudinous seas incarnadine.

Making the green one red”.

Othello gives the supreme romantic expression to his hate and love for Desdemona in the Bed Chamber Scene.

“Nor scar that whiter skin of her than snow

And smooth as monumental alabaster.”


“But once put out thy light”,

Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature,

I know not where is that Promethean heat.

That can thy light relume”.

Let us come closer. There has been for the last hundred years in interminable debate about the real distinction, between the terms ‘Classical and ‘Romantic’. Prof. Grierson in his little but revealing book on the subject has cut the Gordian Knot. For him the real distinction between classical and romantic art lies in the fundamental attitude of the artist not only to the material of his art but to life in general.

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The romantic artist always reacts to the world as an individual and has at the root of all his experiences, his own particular set of values. He prizes his inner promptings rather than an outer authority in fact the romantic artist finds none. The most fundamental principle of romanticism is given is that curt summary of Blake,

“To generalize is to be an idiot, To particularize is the great distinction of merits”.

And equally clear in W.B. Yeats’s assertion merits in plays and controversies. “All art is founded upon personal vision, and the greater the art, the more personal the vision, and all bad art is founded upon impersonal types and images…” This gives the interpretation of art from the typically romantic point of view.

The 18th century or the Neoclassical Age against which the Romantic art reacted was an age dominated by social conventions. In every field it was the collective sanction of society that had the final vito. Thus 18th century literature was essentially devoid of all deep and genuine emotions and visions Imaginatic was looked on with suspicion. It was Dr. Johnson who wrote, “the mother of illusions and the handmaid of dacoits”. When the tide turned against this classicism of the Angus tong, the fundamental issue was the question of values. The Romantic discredited the “Mechanistic philosophy”. If the 17th century and substitutes it by an organic view of the world. Then we find the rehabilitation of the individual against social conventions. The romantic poetry; therefore is the communication of a single soul to another. This subjectivism has taken many forms of expressions. The most obvious form is the tendency of self-dramatisation, Byron wrote all his life about himself in a series of thinly disguised portrait-Childe Harold, Manfred, Don Juan and others. The hero of Wordsworth’s prelude is himself Romantic subjectivism is provided by the inherent lyrical impulse of the age. The poets wrote not according to some acknowledged standard of thinking and feeling like the Augustans, but recorded their own personal reactions to the world of experience. Romantic poetry shows a mind alone with the universe. It reveals the beauties of nature expressed in a Dairy or a Galandiwe the permanents mutability of Nature, symbolised by the hill and the cloud, the transience of earthly love and joy, and the eternity of the world of art as suggested by an antique urn, but always it is the expression of a single mind. The romantic also looks back and looks forward and escapes to the land of his heart’s desire. Thus transition from the Neo-classical Age to the Age of Romantic revival is marked by a transference of emphasis from social conventions to individual values. The poet comes down from the common social platform whence Dryden and Pope laughed at their enemies and Dr. Johnson sermonized on the vanity of human wishes to a quite lonely corner where the poet reveals his own vivid impressions of men and nature, of his personal aspirations and delights dejection and longing. From the busy market place we are taken into dim labyrinth of the soul. Lastly, let us say that the classical and romantic are the systole and diastole of human heart in history. They represent, on the one hand-our need of order, of synthesis, and of a comprehensive. Yet definite ordering of thought and feelings and on the other hand the inevitable finiteness of every human synthesis. Let us also bear in mind that the highest art transcends all such distinctions between the classical and the Romantic.



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