Coleridge, the Return to Nature, and the New Anti-Romanticism: An Essay in Polemic[Record]

  • Seamus Perry

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  • Seamus Perry
    Lincoln College, Oxford

Definitions of English 'romanticism' are doomed because there is always an appeal to exception; and no exception may be ruled self-evidently irrelevant without presuming a definition before you begin. The significance of this impasse shouldn't be exaggerated: for most critics most of the time, it is quite unimportant; you simply don't need a definition of romanticism to write about Wordsworth or Coleridge (or Austen or Byron). On the other hand, you clearly depend upon one if you wish to establish anti-romantic credentials: you are honour-bound to define what you define yourself (or your chosen author) against. Polemical modernists like Hulme or Eliot might come to mind here; but anti-romantic definitions of the 'romantic' form a genre which long outlives modernism: critics like Leavis, and contemporary figures like McGann and his New Historicist followers, contribute to it too. These various authors write in very different contexts, to be sure; but the demerits of the romanticism they identify to deplore are fundamentally similar, as are the attributes of the anti-romanticism they each claim as their own to praise. Common too is an adversarial quality to their prose, which stems from a conviction that the issue is one of the most vital currency: not just a matter of historical interest, romanticism has continued to the present day, nurturing unscrutinised assumptions from which we must break free, finally post-romantic, into health. In this essay, I aim to sketch what seem to me the salient characteristics of anti-romantic writing, tracing the genre back to Coleridge and forward to recent 'historicist' criticism. This new school makes one interesting variation on the terms it inherits from the Coleridgean tradition, which is to apply them to the concept of 'History'; and with some remarks on this dubious innovation, I shall conclude. I should say at once that turning in this way to the tradition of anti-romanticism is not going to take us any nearer what romanticism 'actually is'; but it may spur us to think about what kind of activity defining it usually is. For the anti-romantics, the business of definition is not a question of disinterested historical enquiry so much as the staking of one's own imaginative position, a self-assertion furthered by a definitive 'romantic' to anathematise. In some classic examples of the genre, Shelley occupies this exemplary role; but his place has been assumed in more recent criticism by Coleridge and those 'idealist' aspects of Wordsworth's poetry which might be thought especially Coleridgean. (Shelley's politics seem to have rescued him.) Coleridge is at once theorist and summation of romantic failings; and, at the same time, he is well known as founding father of modern 'formalism', thus establishing the double-focus - upon both literary history and contemporary mores - which characterises anti-romantic writing. There is a twist, however: for not only the 'romantic' but also the 'anti-romantic' position can, in fact, be traced back to Coleridge. Of course, the implication of earlier anti-romantics within the romanticism they hope to spurn has often been remarked: Hartman, for example, says that '[t]he reaction [...] of T. E. Hulme, Eliot and the New Humanists, appears to us more and more as one within Romanticism'; and this argument makes 'anti-romanticism' one of the threads of a continuing 'romantic' tradition, which seems set to become a terrible paradox. But the mystery is mostly verbal: instead of 'continuing romanticism' we might refer (as I have already) to a 'Coleridgean tradition', something less univocal than someone after a definition of 'romantic' might hope for, and rather more diversely inclusive - something one might be 'within'. Maurice was righter even than he knew in seeing …