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Romanticism versus Neoclassicism

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Neoclassical and Romantic movements cover the period of 1750 to 1850. Neoclassicism showed life to be more rational than it really was. The Romantics favoured an interest in nature, picturesque, violent, sublime. Unlike Neo_classicism, which stood for the order, reason, tradition, society, intellect and formal diction, Romanticism allowed people to get away from the constrained rational views of life and concentrate on an emotional and sentimental side of humanity. In this movement the emphasis was on emotion, passion, imagination, individual and natural diction. Resulting in part from the liberation and egalitarian ideals of the French Revolution, the romantic movement had in common only a revolt against the rules of classicism. There are obviously a lot of distinctions between these two movements and here I am going to compare and contrast these two movements in English literature by considering the principles and writers and works of writers which exhibit these differences in both periods.

Neoclassicism was an artistic and intellectual movement, beginning in the mid-17th century in England, both progressive and traditional in its goal of rivaling the literary and artistic accomplishments of Augustus Caesar’s day and the classical period in general. This movement could be characterized as a “religion of the head.” On the contrary, Romanticism was an artistic and intellectual movement that spread across Europe in the late 18th and early 19th century. This movement was a reaction in direct opposition to the Age of Reason in its understanding of human happiness and the means to achieve it. This literary revolution could be characterized as a “religion of the heart.”

Neoclassical writers imitated great poems of the past because of the belief that men had agreed on certain, fixed ways of writing across the centuries. Rules for pastoral poetry, the satire and the epic were respectfully followed. A Neoclassical poet’s philosophy argued that the best way for humans to communicate effectively and thus move forward in better understanding the world was to agree upon certain conventions. Romantic writers were skeptical and cynical regarding existing laws, political structures, manners and other conventions such as rules for an epic or an ode. Romantic writers experimented with mixing the various art forms. British Romantic writers on the whole still observed certain conventions in writing as a self-imposed discipline and expressed revolutionary ideas rather than taking lawless, radical actions.

Neoclassicist insisted on order in beauty but the Romantics constituted the predominance of imagination over reason and formal rules and over the sense of fact or the actual. Neoclassical writers were confident in the human power of reason to achieve progress in this “new day” or Enlightenment. Human faculties were capable of making sense and order out of the universe. Romantic writers were deeply and self-consciously interested in emotions and imagination. Writers strove to deify the heroic extremes of feeling, encouraging readers to trust their emotions, intuitions and instincts over rational thought. The imagination was thought to be the most valuable of all human faculties. As Schubert stated: “Oh, imagination, thou supreme jewel of making . . . Preserve us from that so-called Enlightenment, that ugly skeleton without flesh or blood.”

The belief that humans are rational animals, composed of a central, identifiable human nature, is the focus of certain Neo _classical works. Many writers assumed that humans could overcome individual eccentricities and find commonality; thus they extrapolated that all people could relate to the ideas, emotions and expression of their writing. In Neo_classicism we have objectivism whereas Romanticism deals with subjectivism. A Romantic writer was occupied with his/her own unique response to the world, with an inward focus on his/her individual emotional history. As Schlegel stated: “Reason is but one and the same in all men; however, just as each human being has his own nature and his peculiar love, so each person carries his own poetry in himself.”

In romanticism emotions matter; human emotional reactions are real and are an integral part of our lives. Qualities of “reality,” the divine, or divinities may be reflected in nature in Romanticism and we can sense God or the gods through our sensing of nature.While in Neo_classicism there is a concern for “nature”–or the way things are (and should be). This relates back to the distrust of innovation and inherent conservatism of neoclassicism. The artistic rules of old, for instance, Pope describes as having been “discovered, not devised” and are “Nature methodized”; so too, “Nature and Homer” are “the same” (Essay on Criticism 88ff., 135). This belief in “nature” implies a conviction that there is a permanent, universal way things are (and should be), which obviously entails fundamental political and ethical commitments. The focus on natural feeling over conventional rules led to an emphasis on the self over the earlier neoclassical emphasis on society.

The individual becomes the source of wisdom and morality, displacing the received set of rules and norms given by society. As a result, emphasis is paced on understanding the individual’s subjective state, especially as it relates to the outside world. Works ranging from Rousseau’s Confessions and Reveries of a Solitary Walker to Wordsworth’s Prelude, Coleridge’s «conversation» poems, «Dejection», «Frost at Midnight», «Lime Tree Beauty» are examples of the romantic exploration of the self. Because romantics see the individual’s relation to the outside world as the source of morality and wisdom, the importance of nature becomes a prime concern. Unlike urban environments that distort and hinder one’s sense of relation to the world, natural settings leave the romantic individual free to understand her or his own «interpenetration», as Keats called it, with objective phenomena or with the not-self. The individual’s creative relation with the objective world sets a premium on the faculty of the imagination, which is emphasized for two primary reasons. Romantics also set great store in the active and creative role that we play in relationships with the world, a world which each of us, as Wordsworth writes, «half-creates and half-perceives».

In Romanticism, common people matter and individuals matter; the philosophy of the 18th. Century (Locke) finally comes to art as the Romantics recognize that the world is made up of all its individuals, not just “the great”; the common people may be better than the “great” in that they know their place in the Cosmos; humility and self-sacrifice are rewarded; hubris (such as earns the wrath of the gods) is present in all who believe they are “superior” to others; “the Rebel” (Prometheus) may take his place as the Hero, but in Neo_classisicm, there is a concern for “nature”–or the way things are (and should be). This relates back to the distrust of innovation and inherent conservatism of neoclassicism. The artistic rules of old, for instance, Pope describes as having been “discovered, not devised” and are “Nature methodized”; so too, “Nature and Homer” are “the same” (Essay on Criticism 88ff., 135).

This belief in “nature” implies a conviction that there is a permanent, universal way things are (and should be), which obviously entails fundamental political and ethical commitments. In Romanticism beauty is linked to originality, the “new” and new ways of thinking & seeing; the sublime attracts; the sublime is defined as that which is awesome; that which overpowers the senses and the emotions; that which one simultaneously is scared to death of and deeply attracted to. However, in Neo_classisicm, there is a regard for tradition and reverence for the classics, with an accompanying distrust of innovation. There is a concern with “pride” as the root of threats to the above. We might see pride as in part standing for individual self assertion against the status quo (“nature”). Pope:

Of all the causes which conspire to blind

Man’s erring judgment, and misguide the mind,

What the weak head with strongest bias rules,

Is pride, the never-failing vice of fools.

Aesthetic theories focusing on the sublime, or the physically and/or conceptually overwhelming in Romanticism are opposite the balance and harmony characteristic of neoclassical aesthetics theories of the beautiful.

The other recurring themes of Romanticism are as following:

A worship of nature

* The belief that corruption lies in society, not in the individual, with a new interest in man prior to society, as both child and the “noble savage”

* The belief that the genius, the extraordinary person, is worthy of
admiration and study (Napoleon, Faust)

* A new interest in the unconscious mind and dreams

* A new appreciation for “low” or popular culture (folk song, fairy tale) as opposed to aristocratic culture

* A conceptualization of the artist as a solitary, alienated figure

* The revival of mysticism, interest in the occult, and altered states

* A fascination with madness and death

* An anti-bourgeois bias (while the members of the movement tended to be bourgeois)

* An interest in the past (nostalgia for the Middle Ages, for example) while also utopian in ideals

* A belief in the supersensuous or noumenal state of being: the sublime

* The ideal of spontaneity and naturalness in writing

English Romanticism is best represented by poetry which was more suitable to the expression of emotional experiences, individual feeling and imagination. The great Romantic Poets are usually grouped into two generations: The first, represented by William Blake, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, while the poets of the second generation were John Keats, Shelley and Byron. No two writers were romantic in the same way, nor was a writer necessarily romantic in all his work. These poets did not share a unity of purpose but shared some ideas and remained highly individual in their psychology. Romanticism in English Literature began in 1790s with the publication of “The Lyrical Ballades” of Wordsworth and Coleridge. Wordsworth’s “Preface” to the second edition of “The Lyrical Ballades” (1800), in which he describes poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” became the manifesto of the English Romantic movement in Poetry.

Coleridge emphasized the importance of the poet’s imagination and discounted adherence to arbitrary literary rules. All romantic poets emphasized the poet’s personal reaction to life and the individual self. William Blake was the third principal poet of the movement’s early phase in England. He was probably the most singular of the English romanticists. His poems and paintings are radiant, imaginative and heavily symbolic, indicating the spiritual reality underlying the physical reality. On the contrary, the Neo_classisicm in literature is associated with the “Augustan” writers of the early 18th Century, all the heirs of John Dryden and Milton. The giant among their inspiring latin classics was Virgil. Major writers of the period have included Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift and Alexonder Pope. Neo_classical writers do not recreat the forms, but exhibit perfect control of an idiom.

Dryden forms the link between Restoration and Augustan literature; although he wrote ribald comedies in the Restoration vein, his verse satires were highly admired by the generation of poets who followed him, and his writings on literature were very much in a neoclassical spirit. But more than any other it is the name of Alexander Pope which is associated with the epoch known as the Augustan Age, despite the fact that other writers such as Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe had a more lasting influence. This is partly a result of the politics of naming inherent in literary history: many of the early forms of prose narrative common at this time did not fit into a literary era which defined itself as neoclassic.

The literature of this period which conformed to Pope’s aesthetic principles (and could thus qualify as being ‘Augustan’) is distinguished by its striving for harmony and precision, its urbanity, and its imitation of classical models such as Homer, Cicero, Virgil, and Horace, for example in the work of the minor poet Matthew Prior. In verse, the tight heroic couplet was common, and in prose essay and satire were the predominant forms. Any facile definition of this period would be misleading, however; as important as it was, the neoclassicist impulse was only one strain in the literature of the first half of the eighteenth century. But its representatives were the defining voices in literary circles, and as a result it is often some aspect of ‘neoclassicism’ which is used to describe the era.

As mentioned before the “Rediscovery” of Nature as a medium for divine revelation (natural supernaturalism) has been one of the features of Romantic poetry but in Neo_classisicm nature is defined as human nature. Romantic paradox and problems are the conflicted political background and legacy, what does this mean for women? ,scrutinizing romantic mythmaking: the noble savage and the mythology of imperialism and the tricky morality: an ethics based on the imagination or emotion. On the contrary Neo_classisicm was concerned with the society as a whole, respected human institutions of church and state, sought to follow authority, believed in order of all things, maintained traditional standards, exercised control and wit and followed formal rules and diction. The Neo_classicism was inspired by the Greeks and Romas whereas Romanticism was inspired by Medieval stories.

Neoclassicists believed in Greek ideals, in restraint of passions, and valued communication as an exchange rather than individual self-expression. This is another distinction which influenced both movements. We can also refer to another characteristic of Romanticism against the formal diction used in Neo_classical literature which is simple, inevitable plots, the alienated, antisocial hero, an archaic quality; a relationship between mind and nature; time of literary experiment, an interest in the past; truths of the heart (vs. mind). In Romanticism, we have the abandonment of the heroic couplet in favour of blank verse, the sonnet, the speserian stanza and many experimental verse forms. We can see the dropping of the conventional poetic diction in favour of fresher language and bolder figures.

We have the idealization of rural life (Goldsmith), enthusiasm for the uncivilized or natural interest in human rights (Burn and Byron), Sympathy with animal life (Cowper), sentimental melancholy (Gray), emotional psychology in fiction ( Richardson), collection and imitation of popular ballades (Percy, Scott), interest in ancient Celtic and Scandinavian mythology and literature, renewed interest in Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton. However, in Neo_classical literature, the earth and everything on it including human beings were part of universal order and the major purpose of life was thought of as recognizing or learning something about that given order to the natural world and the cosmos and to live ones life in accordance with it.

This order of the world was entirely mechanical or primarily spiritual. Hence, the works of Dryden, Pope, Swift, Addison and John Gay, as well as many of their contemporaries, exhibit qualities of order, clarity, and stylistic decorum that were formulated in the major critical documents of the age: Dryden’s An Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1668), and Pope’s Essay on Criticism (1711). These works, forming the basis for modern English literary criticism, insist that ‘nature’ is the true model and standard of writing. This ‘nature’ of the Augustans, however, was not the wild, spiritual nature the romantic poets would later idealize, but nature as derived from classical theory: a rational and comprehensible moral order in the universe, demonstrating God’s providential design.

By considering all the features of both periods above, we can come into the conclusion that the chief emphasis on romanticism was upon freedom of individual, self expression, sincerity, spontaneity, and originality. These principles became the new standards in literature, replacing the decorous imitation of classical models favoured by the 18th century Neo_classisicm, in which we have the emphasis of associated thought over linear or logical representation and to the abandonment of traditional plot forms. So Romanticism was a reaction against cold intellect (an intellect discovered from emotion) and neoclassical principles of reason and logic. Romanticists found that the orderly, mechanical universe that the science thrived under was too narrow_minded in terms of feeling or imagination. I think we can find many (never all) of romantic elements in much of art and much of the thought we term romantic. And I believe the presented list provides us with a sense of the differences between romantic poetry and neoclassical poetry which preceded it.

From Neo-Classicism to Romanticism

Neo-Classicism, Age of Reason, Enlightenment (1660s-1770s) Romanticism (1770s-1830s) head heart reason feeling, passion, imagination humans as social beings (products of social order) humans as natural beings (products of Nature) respect for authority questioning of authority, identification with and love of Nature symmetry, balance, harmony diagonals, dynamic motion stability challenge to status quo hierarchy democracy universality individualism, egocentrism conformity, representative truths eccentricity, idiosyncrasy tradition originality decorum rebellion against form measure and proportion intensity, excess clarity, simplicity mysticism, ornateness restraint, self-restraint indulgence of feeling public, daytime orientation private, night orientation; joys of solitude rational sense to universe: patterns, laws, meaning mysterious universe: hidden, dark forces, the supernatural mechanistic world organic world present world exotic and medieval subjects real world yearning for the infinite and the ideal sensibility as moral force sense of the sublime melancholy musings importance of childhood and the past impossibility of happy love Noble Savage Byronic hero Gothic world: morbid, forbidden impulses, animality, illicit forces

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