The Romantics: So What? (Part 1)

“The end of the eighteenth century, swept by vast disturbing currents, experienced an excitement of spirit of which one note was a reaction against an outworn classicism severed not more from nature than from the genuine motives of ancient art … Complex and subtle interests, which the mind spins for itself may occupy art and poetry or our own spirits for a time; but sooner or later they come back with a sharp rebound to the simple elementary passions—anger, desire, regret, pity, and fear: and what corresponds to them in the sensuous world—bare, abstract
fire, water, air, tears, sleep, silence, and what De Quincey has called the “glory of motion.” (Walter Pater, “Aesthetic Poetry” 1, 4)

And here we are, at the last “official” topic: What’s the big deal about the Romantics? If you haven’t been able to tell, I’ve been saying this whole time, “HEY! You should read the Romantics… and much more deeply than we’ve gone into with this blog.” On the surface, that ‘s not a stance that has anything to do with Literary Theory.  So you say, “So what, James? That’s just your artistic preference. Convince me of something useful.”

This whole time, it hasn’t been just about reading the Romantics. Studying Romantic Poetry has been a medium for two things:

  1. (For both of us) To learn to appreciate Literature and Art aesthetically, for its own beauty and sublimity and thus be able to see the world, its culture, and art through Romantic glasses, and
  2. (For me, mainly) To see the responses to the presenting of a digital classroom in this format.

Yes, I do believe the Romantic worldview carries meaningful weight, from what Wordsworth says about the poet and his work, what Coleridge puts forward as the functioning of the imagination, to how Keats strives for beauty, truth, and respecting the heart’s passions. In this Postmodern world, sometimes it’s not okay for an intelligent person to say, “I like this; just because. I respect this work of art for its inherent beauty.” Andrew Delbanco explains the effects of Deconstruction criticism  in his essay, “The Decline and Fall of Literature,”

“[The Deconstructionist view led to the dogmatic understanding that] literature, like any constructed system of meaning, must be assessed in relation to this or that “identity” (race, class, gender, etc.) to the exclusion of every other point of view. Here began in earnest the fragmentation of literary studies that is so evident today—and that has left a legacy of acrimony, and of intellectual and professional fatigue.”

“Fatigue.” Growing tired of studying art?! How can that be? Delbanco explains that many criticism theories have destroyed the enjoyment in literature. Today the literary scholar cannot write solely of the aesthetic value of the work, for that holds no importance. Instead, he or she must abdicate all enjoyment to the ceaseless pursuit of a new point-of-view that may shed light on something never-before-seen. In relation to this, Delbanco summarizes John Ellis, author of Literature Lost:

In Literature Lost, the shrillest of recent books on the crisis, John Ellis blames the whole mess on the dynamics of professionalization—on, that is, the pressure to publish something, anything, that is novel or startling or upon which a reputation can be built. The publish-or-perish desperation has only increased as the readership for what is published declines.

You see, the problem here isn’t just that people aren’t accepting art for itself, the problem is that art must now be dissected, picked apart, examined, and left on the floor to rot. Can I make a case that art is important and should be appreciated for its own sake? I believe so. To do this, though, one must set aside questions that are outside the reader, questions such as, “What is art, really?” and “Who is allowed to be an artist?” These questions are irrelevant when one enjoys any book, poem, painting, photograph, or anything else and lets the experience be come naturally, unhampered except by forces which exist in the subconscious (Kendall Walton, “Aesthetics: What, Why, and Wherefore?” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 65.2 (2007): 147-161) . And such is the “recollection in tranquility” of which Wordsworth speaks.

In “Aesthetics” Walton argues that our concept of art–whether it be anything from literature to a baseball game (I know, right?)–and the theories and criticisms that we bring to it should be those that form up from the art instead of plastering ideas right onto the art (159). This idea is what I was going for throughout this blog and will continue to pursue–that which we experience now illuminates the poetry of the Romantics and vice versa.

There is at least one problem with this theory: sometimes we cannot help what we bring to the table. This gets back to our ideas of experience and secondary imagination; our collected experiences passively influence us as we engage in any work of art, thus creating a new work of art in the process. Loiuse Rosenblatt, in her 1938 book Literature as Exploration puts it this way: “The reader [creates] a poem out of texts by an active, self-ordering, and self-correcting process (11). This process is the one of which we’ve been speaking, that a reader–and this goes further than the aesthetic–brings his or her own experiences and interprets the text by those experiences. If we are to accept Rosenblatt’s view, experiencing any text within itself is impossible.

Of course, this may not be such a big problem, for to be open-minded while approaching and taking in a text must be possible, else our beliefs would forever be in a solid state. Luckily, our beliefs are fluid, and while we may always be creating a poem as we read a text–or any other piece of art, for that matter–the poem which we create can and should be controlled by our will to take in the text unbiasedly and in a way which the author would have us to.

So, as we read, let us continue to create our own poems, to let them spring forth in times of tranquility as Wordsworth would have us, all the while keeping our heads clear and respecting the heart of the author with the pure view that Keats had, experiencing that which the author meant for us as readers to experience.


I will wrap up this post by sharing my thoughts on the project as it relates to the digital humanities, looking at its successes and its failures–and what I have learned along the way.


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