Romantic Studies by Frances Ferguson

Frances Ferguson in this article is not analyzing the existing discourse of criticism about Romantic Studies; rather he is entering into the criticism of romanticism by foregrounding the arguments that underline the dispute about romanticism. In this essay, his position is that of an analyst, analyzing the major issues raised by different critics in different times about the whole romantic aesthetics.

Ferguson is more concerned about romantic criticism and its continuing engagements with the arguments of romanticism in relation to the definition of art under romantic aesthetics, the relationship between artist and his aesthetic experience and such experience in relation to the society. It has been the tradition or a sign of our own time to be changed in renewing the critical debate about the Romantic Movement. The central issue in such renewed debate is “whether there was really such movement call romanticism.” The central postulation of such debate states that if romanticism was really movement it must have the commonly shared perspectives about art, artistic creation and the judgment of it but because “Romanticism” appears to be heterogeneous and essentially diverse and divisive rather than homogeneous, unitary and one concrete entity. The British version of romanticism is different from rest of the other versions and moreover within the British version one figure of it differs in many respects from another key figure. Such diversity is equally applicable to other various versions of romanticism. For example, in British romanticism Wordsworth is nostalgic, Shelley is revolutionary, Keats is utopian, Coleridge is supernatural, Blake is mystic and visionary whereas Byron is irrational, vulnerable and destructive (Carlyle). Because of such debate about romanticism, the intellectual intelligentsia (expertise) is mainly engaged in one single dominant question, how many romanticisms are there?

The influence of Kantian theory of aesthetics, Schiller’s imaginative play drive, the impact of the French revolution and American war of independence, anti-enlightenment sentiment, Rousseau’s primitivism, utter disregard to the neo-classical urbanity and the restrains of artistic composition, romanticist’s urban location and the love for nature and rustic as well as the detached fascination to the pastoral are some of the key factors and pre-occupations of romanticism. Because of this diversity and heterogeneity and even the paradoxes with in romanticism as such-a coherent, homogeneous entity tends to disappear. But again it is foolish to argue in terms of such heterogeneities and diversities that romanticism as a movement never came into existence in the history of European art and literature.

Romanticism claims of compatibility and consistency on the one hand but on the other hand, we notice incompatibility and inconsistence inherent in this movement. The inherent inconsistency and incompatibility i.e. the difference between the rhetoric and reality has generated many disputes in the recent critical practices of romanticism. Francis Ferguson, in this brief critical essay, is surveying the disputes and related issues raised by different critics at different times in their respective analysis of the discourse of romanticism. As surveyed by Ferguson despite the difference in the modes of analysis of the underlying dispute of romanticism by different critics”, chronology is maintained and one critical document exists in response to the previous while generating a new response mainly in the discussion of romantic aesthetics.

According to Ferguson, amid such situation, Aurther O’Lovejoy published an article “On the Discrimination of Romanticisms”. An important debate issue raised was how many Romanticism there were in 1924 in which he characterized romanticism as eventually diverse, divisive and inconstant. As a belated response to the discrimination Rene Wellek published “Concept of Romanticisms in Literary History” in 1949 in which he claimed that despite the outward difference between and among the romanticisms and romantics at deeper level romanticism still appears to be a coherent, homogeneous and a constant literary movement. This contradictory critical stance is revived recently by McGann. McGann brings the reference of M.H. Abrams and his paradoxical position in relation to romanticism in order to make his own position clear about the discourse of romanticism.

Lovejoy in his discussion asserted that the word romanticism has come to mean so many things that by itself it means nothing. Because of the all inclusiveness of the term he argued for the need and importance of discriminating romanticism to distinguish “the distinct thought complexes” to identify the naturalism-that conceives nature as a thing we can reach by going back (primitivism) and by living out of romanticism. Lovejoy states that romanticism may be one but it includes not merely an embrace of primitivism but also it refuses to acknowledge it. Once, a term comes to mean one thing and its opposite at the same time, for Lovejoy, it loses its meaning. Because of this paradoxical nature romanticism, for him appears no longer homogeneous, coherent and unitary movement. While defining romanticism one encounters absolute contradiction in the process of moving from one level of generality to another.

Unlike Lovejoy, Rene Wellek shifted the terms of debate from “modes” of romanticism to expectation of the people from the word romanticism. For Wellek there is a complete agreement among English, French and German, romanticisms on all essential concepts like imagination, nature, expression, emotion, feeling and moreover the nostalgic recollection. Viewed in this way romanticism does not appear to be heterogeneous but a coherent unitary and artistic movement. Unity for Wellek is to look at the system of norms. If we study the system of norms romanticism does not appear creating mistaken impression; rather it emergence was an effort to register the existence of the shared system of norms which dominate literature at a particular period. If for Lovejoy there is a substansive difference between Byron and Wordsworth, for Wellek the difference is not substansive at all and can be viewed in terms of public and private faces. Byron represents the public face whereas Wordsworth represents private face of the same movement. If for Lovejoy the job of professional library historian is to analyze the distinction, for Wellek it is to insist on a body of professional knowledge that enables one to see literary history as a systematic and holistic account of literature.

In this context McGann recently has renewed the debate about the numbers of romanticism by supporting the critical position of Lovejoy rather than that of Wellek. Romanticism for him, rather than confirming a distinct historical period, confirms the plurality; for he believes one must create new critical distinctions to account not merely for certain general tendencies but for individual authors too. Pluralism for McGann is both a scholarly method and political program. McGann in his renewed debate on romanticism has discussed M.H. Abrams’ views about romanticism. Abrams identified the movement and its aesthetic sphere with the revolutionary spirit of the age. Abrams studied the French revolution not only as the formal basis but also as the line of division for romantic writing and analyzed the literary production of the age in terms of the hope and despair resulting through the French revolution itself. Abrams’ “spirit of the age” enabled him to study many apolitical poems in terms of politics. The romantic tradition of lyric became scrutinized because of the political colour. In fact, most of the lyrics produced by these romantist were no longer associated with the revolutionary spirit of the age.

Out of this criticism of Abrams McGann credited the first part of argument about the romantic poetry and its relations to the revolutionary climate of the time. But Ferguson argues that though McGann is a new historicist in analyzing the discourse of romanticism, his preference for French revolution as a formal basis of romantic aesthetics like that of Abrams underlines the very claim of a new historicist. Abrams seems to claim that French revolution has become so much implicated in romantic structure of emotion that it must remain as implicit referent even for the lyrics of the most individual sentiment. It is so because Abrams accepted the French revolution as the spirit of the age sustaining the formal aspect of romantic poetry. At the same time Abrams dissolved apparent unity by treating events not merely as central term but as a line of division; from this (first) part of the discussion of French revolution in Abrams, McGann accepted the one and rejected the other. By accepting one part of the French revolution while denying the other, Ferguson claims McGann managed to install politics as the central concern of the operation of literary taxonomy of romanticism- distinguishing, and discriminating one kind of romanticism form another.

In this stance, McGann made initial return to Lovejoy-Wellek debate after the rise of Abrams criticism. He found a willingness in both Abrams and Wellek to imagine a spirit of the age that functions to call up individual authors. Like Abrams in the process of studying and analyzing romanticism in terms of plurality at the level of individual authors and again at the level of individual poems he found Lovejoy more useful than Rene Wellek. But while analyzing Abrams through the perspective of new historicists, Ferguson asserts that McGann developed his own version of new historicism. Such new historicism of McGann, rather than accepting history as an event or the “cultural poetics” like that of Greenblatt, commits itself to history as the ongoing proliferation of more minimal units. By emphasizing on the formal process of differentiation and individuation his version of history has produced no distinctions rather it homologizes history and texts by making them the continually about the relationship of parts and the whole. Because recent critical practices about romanticism veer around the question of “form” such recent move of McGann as claimed by Ferguson has demonstrated complexities of the form of romantic writing. Though the formal basis to the romantic writing was offered by Kantian formalism, among the critics a new tendency to dismiss form as the means to create formal boundary around “the text” has become almost a routine.