Modern on Romantic


          Because modernist artists and writers obviously represent a distinct departure from earlier Victorian values of assumed meaning and structure, they tend to portray their cultures in negative tones that often end in despair, apathy, and moral relativism. T.S. Eliot, for one, saw very little relation between 19th-century attitudes and the ones he experienced during his lifetime (1). One would expect, then, even more contrast between the interests of modern period and the earlier “Romantics.” A review of attitudes evident in a limited sampling of modern writing reflects judgments about both the style and the ideas of those writers categorized as “Romantics.”

          Eliot begins by making a general statement about the arts. According to him, a great poet makes language great. Although we tend to associate certain countries with certain art forms (Italy and France with painting, Germany with music, England with poetry), no one nation has ever been sole proprietor of any art form. He says, “Even when one country and language leads all others, we must not assume that the poets to whom this is due are necessarily the greatest poets. I have spoken of the Romantic Movement in England. But at that time, Goethe was writing” (2). Eliot suggests that no measure exists to compare the greatness of Goethe and Wordsworth, but that Goethe’s overall body of work has a greater scope than that of Wordsworth. He adds, “No England poet contemporary with Wordsworth can enter into comparison with Goethe at all” (3).

          An even more explicit comment on Romanticism appears in one of T.E. Hulme’s lectures. He states that “all Romanticism springs from Rousseau, and the key to it can be found even in the first sentence of the Social Contract—‘Man is born free, and he finds himself everywhere in chains.’ In other words, man is by nature something wonderful, of unlimited powers, and if hitherto he has not appeared so, it is because of external obstacles and fetters, which it should be the main business of social politics to remove” (4). By contrast, Ezra Pound says, “The ‘whole of the 18th century’ was a cliché which the Romantics broke up, in a disorderly and amateur manner. The distressing Rousseau, etc. . .ending with Whitman” (5). Apparently, Pound was not a fan of Romanticism.

          Hulme insists, “Romanticism fails to recognize the difference between the regions of (vital) human things, and that of the ‘absolute values of ethics and religion.’ ‘Perfection’ is placed on the human plane where it does not belong. As we are painfully aware that nothing ‘actual’ can be ‘perfect,’ we imagine the perfection to be not where we are, but some distance along one of the roads. Romanticism confuses human and divine things by not clearly separating them, attributes ‘Perfection’ to the human instead of the non-human where it properly belongs” (6). This may be an overstatement of Romantic intention because it seems to imply that the Romantic writer is unable to discern between the Ideal and the Actual.

          Regarding the individual poets, the critics seem to have as wide a range of opinion as they do regarding the worth of the literary movement as a whole. Pound, in offering a solution to man’s dilemma, says that we need “a national dividend, distributive economics, the obliteration of snobbism, Aver roes [medieval Islamic thinker], Avicenna [Muslim philosopher], a beauty of philosophical writing, a dream cut finer than Plato’s, the Alcazar, the Alhambra, a thousand mosques that Keats couldn’t have over described, a sense of man and of human dignity yet unobliterated” (7). Hulme feels that the lyrical style which attained completion in Tennyson, Shelley, and Keats is not appropriate for the present time. He says, “To put the modern conception of the poetic spirit, this tentative and half-shy manner of looking at things, into regular metre is like putting a child into armour” (8).

          Donald Davidson in I’ll Take My Stand feels that “individuality being imperiled, the poet reaffirms the sacredness of the individual. Likewise, he exaggerates feeling at the expense of thought. The works of sensibility emerge. Shelley’s skylark and Keats’ nightingale are not birds, but causes, stimuli, barely tangible perceptions that start a flow of feeling which the poets struggle vainly to declare” (9). Hulme says that Shelley writes “genteel poetry which refers in elaborate analogies to real things that are replaced by symbols” (10).

          Regarding William Blake, Pound’s comment is that “the [James] Whistler show in 1910 contained more real wisdom than that of Blake’s fanatic designs. Neither monopolizing the truth nor exhausting it” (11). Hulme expounds further, “Blake didn’t express any general ‘scheme of life’ imposed on him by society, but ‘exalted the individual angle of vision of minor personalities’” (12).

          On the other hand, the feeling about Lord Byron seems to be relatively benevolent. John Donald Wade in I’ll Take My Stand can “overlook the discrepancies of his [Byron’s] life in view of his inspiring words about liberty” (13). Some other critics also feel “as Byron thought that sheer animal pride is one of the simplest and straightest ways of keeping the human animal decent and superior” (14). Pound declares that one cannot “get Samuel Johnson or Alexander Pope neatness and slickness into Byronic slap dash and keep the quality that made ‘Don Juan’” (15). Pound does not indicate here, however, whether this “slap dash” was, in truth, slapped in a dash or whether it was carefully contrived to give such an appearance.

           Perhaps, Samuel Coleridge’s ideas are more debated than is his style. Coleridge found mechanism to be a real concern. Hulme suggests, “One cannot read Coleridge without seeing what a real worry it was to him” (16). Eliot was one who was interested in Coleridge’s ideas. He writes, “In using the term ‘Idea’ I have of course had in mind the definition given by Coleridge, when he lays down at the beginning of the Church and State that: By an idea I mean (in this instance) that conception of a thing, which is not abstracted from any particular state, form or mode, in which the thing may happen to exist at this or that time, nor yet generalized from any number or succession of such form or modes; but which is given by the knowledge of its ultimate aim” (17). Eliot adds, “Coleridge remarked that ‘in a language like ours, where so many words are derived from other languages, there are few modes of instruction more useful or more amusing than that of accustoming young people to seek for the etymology, or primary meaning, of the words they use. There are cases, in which more knowledge of more value may be conveyed by the history of a word, than by the history of a campaign” (18)! Davidson attends to Wordsworth’s ideas rather than his form when he says, “Wordsworth’s hope that the objects of science might one day become materials of art, when they are as familiar as trees and rocks, seems a far from realization as ever” (19). He says, “Romanticism began with industrial revolution” and it was “the artistic antitoxin for industrialism” (20).

          Davidson further defends the Romanticists in his essay, “A Mirror for Artists.” He says, “The arts (under industrialization) are subject to the same confusion of purpose that Matthew Arnold once attributed to the English Romantic poets. Their work, he said, was ‘premature’ (21) largely because they did not participate in a ‘current of ideas in the highest degree animating and nourishing to the creative power’—such a ‘current of ideas’ or a ‘national glow of life and thought’ as Sophocles or Pindar enjoyed. Arnold thus put his finger on the difficulty that beset not only the Romantic poets, but Arnold himself and the Victorian writers in general, and that is exaggerated rather than diminished today.”

          Davidson continues, “For Arnold’s ‘premature’ I should substitute ‘belated.’ Romantic writers, from William Blake to [ironically] T.S. Eliot, are not so much an advance guard leading the way to new conquests as a rear guard—a survival of happier days when the artist’s profession was not so much a separate and special one as it is now. Romantic writers—and modern writers, who are also romantic—behave like persons whose position is threatened and needs fresh justification. The rebellion against tradition, so marked in some kinds of Romanticism, is thus an abandonment of one untenable fortress in order to take a new position that the artist hopes will be unassailable.”

          He concludes, “Critics of the Humanist school have dragged the weaknesses of Romantic art into the light, but fail to realize that if there is to be any art at all under the conditions of modern life, it must probably be Romantic art. Unpredictable though the great artist may be, no study of the past can fail to reveal that social conditions direct the temper and form of art. And many though the varieties of Romanticism may be, their origin is probably always in an artificial or maladjusted relation between the artist and society” (22). It would be interesting to have the Romanticists assessment of modern writers. No doubt, few would remain standing at the end.  


1  Modernism and the Modern Novel.” The Electronic Labyrinth. 1993-2000. 4/2/05.             <>

2  T.S. Eliot. Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co.,  Inc., 1949, 115.

3  Ibid., 116.

4  T.E. Hulme. Speculations. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., Inc., 1936, 255-256.

5  Ezra Pound. Guide to Kulchur. Norfolk, CT: James Laughlin, 1952, 181.

6  Hulme, Speculations, 33, 256.

7  Pound, 181.

8  T.E. Hulme. Further Speculations. Ed. Sam Hynes. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1955, 73.

9  Donald Davidson. Twelve Southerners. I’ll Take My Stand. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1930, 44.

10  Hulme, Further, 79, 77.

11  Pound, 181.

12  Hulme, Further, 110.

13  John Donald Wade. Twelve Southerners. I’ll Take My Stand. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1930, 272.

14  Ibid., 352.

15  Pound, 184.

16  Hulme, Further, 61.

17  T.S. Eliot. The Idea of a Christian Society. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1940, 67.

18  Ibid., 85.

19  Davidson, 46.

20  Ibid., 49, 50.

21  Ibid., 40.

22  Ibid., 41,42.



Works Cited


Davidson, Donald. Twelve Southerners. I’ll Take My Stand. New York: Harper & Brothers


            Publishers, 1930.


Eliot, T.S. The Idea of a Christian Society. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1940.


-----. Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1949.


Hulme, T.E. Further Speculations. Ed. Sam Hynes. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota  


            Press, 1955.


-----. Speculations. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., Inc., 1936.


Pound, Ezra. Guide to Kulchur. Norfolk, CT: James Laughlin, 1952.


Wade, John Donald. Twelve Southerners. I’ll Take My Stand. New York: Harper & Brothers


            Publishers, 1930.