Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Romanticism, Romantic, Romance

At first, in the 13th or 14th centuries or thereabouts, a romance was a story written in what was then the premier romance language, French. A French story or poem. As we can learn by reading Don Quixote (1607) these were wildly improbable tales in which just about anything could happen and the heroes lived and acted according to an extraordinarily noble code of behavior. No one could accuse Don Quixote of not doing his best to live up to his own chivalric ideals. Other writers, Tasso, Spenser, Sydney, for example had used the romance form for their own purposes, but Cervantes was the first to make his story self-referential thereby leaping at one bound into hypermodernity.

The Romance is an aristocratic art-form; the novel invented (I guess) by Defoe is thoroughly bourgeois and not in the least bit romantic--though the characters may from time to time act in 'romantic' ways. Romanticism, is a response to or reaction against the accelerated rate of economic, technical, industrial development that occurred, first, in England in the late 18th and early 19th century; continental Europe quickly followed. Revolutions are not pretty. There are likely to be more losers than winners. The losers may look back nostalgically to the past; they may try to conserve as much of it as possible. Looking back, we may see the vast popularity of Scott's novels of medieval life as evidence of future-shock.

Here is a sonnet by Wordsworth that gives us something of the essence of romanticism:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It move us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

ps: Anyone who thinks that name-calling is an acceptable form of criticism does not deserve a hearing.


  1. I look upon DON QUIXOTE as an anti-Romance, an attack against aristocratic ideals and chivalry and the Middle Ages in general.

    As you know, Piers, I see most of Shakespeare's characters as hooligans, as I wrote under my English name in "Shylock among the Hooligans" under "Miscellaneous" in www.jochnowitz.net

    Cervantes (1547-1616) and Shakespeare (1564-1616) were contemporaries who looked in opposite directions. Don Quixote, who thought he was a knight but was merely a hooligan, subcribed to the values of chivalry and traveled around looking for a fight. He was always defeated, even by the windmills he attacked, and the other characters in DON QUIXOTE refer to him as crazy. Don Quixote was indeed delusional; the adjective "quixotic" doesn't apply to him. He persisted in clinging to the rules of an earlier age, which had been rejected during the Renaissance because the rules themselves were crazy.

    The Wordworth poem can be interpreted in several ways. It can be read as a call to broaden one's horizons and learn more about the world—an Enlightenment point of view.

  2. I think the Wordsworth poem is a deploration of what I.A. Richards (?) called "the neutralization of nature" -- the process ongoing since the 18th century whereby nature was drained of its supernatural element (and, with that, as was mistakenly thought, its ability to compel wonder).