LOOKING AT THE WORD “ROMANTIC”(1)

You all know the word “romantic” and it arouses all kinds of expectations. It is that kind of word. But where did it come from and how did it develop? It is an interesting story.

In the last blog while I used the word ” Romantic” I was very conscious how complex a word it is. After all the title “Making the Novel Romantic” would have encouraged many readers to imagine I was referring to Mills and Boon type fiction when I was really thinking, not about romance or passion at all, but the influence of romanticism on the Bronte sisters.

The word “romance, ” of course, is the connecting link. It developed from “romaunt” -a verse romance from Old French, as with “Romaunt of the Rose ” translated by Chaucer. But the connections of the word were ancient , going back to Rome and the development of verse in various “provincial” languages of the Roman Empire.

The word “romantic” suddenly appeared in the mid-seventeenth century in English. Since then, it has become a word which mixes ideas of aesthetic appreciation, of associations with romance or passion, of critical attitudes towards the word by rational thinkers and of the exaltation of certain qualities of feeling and imagination. Quite an assortment! Also, as we shall see, it has a complex history of cross-fertilisation with other European tongues, particularly French and German, both of which languages borrowed the word, developed it further and then returned it to English.

I went through much of my life, carrying this legacy of various meanings, without ever endeavouring to sort them out. Then I came across an old book, in a second hand bookshop, by Logan Pearsall Smith, a name I had heard mentioned with a high degree of respect by some critics I admired. This work Words and Idioms, published in 1925 included a chapter on the word “Romantic”, its history and development along with associated words, all of which developed their meanings dramatically, such as “originality”, “imagination”, “genius”, “creativity”. The chapter provided me a real education by showing how the understanding of the development of a new word -or cluster of words- helps us understand key movements of thought.

I would like to share some of Pearsall Smith’s explorations with you. If this wakens your interest I would strongly recommend you to try to get the book to read the chapter in full.

The word “romantic” was first used from the mid-seventeenth century indicating a spirit of critical detachment.:

Its appearance …is an indication of a change in human thought, and marks the moment when that change had become obvious enough to need a term to express it. Romantic simply meant like the old romances for which they were needing a name -that they were being critical of them, and had begun to view them with a certain detachment…. The special characteristic of all these romances, for which a name was now needed, was their falseness and unreality, all that was imaginary and impossible in them, all that was contrary to the more rational view of life which was beginning to dominate men’s minds. The growth of this conception of “order” and “nature”, this “dawn of reason”, as an eighteenth century writer called it, threw into relief certain groups of irrational elements which were opposed to it. The phenomena of religious fanaticism was branded “enthusiasm” and the fictions and imaginations of the old romances were labelled by the word “romantic”. The meaning of “false” “fictitious”, “imaginary”, implied by romantic was applied both to the supernatural elements in the medieval romances, their giants, magicians and enchanted castles; and also to the false, impossible, high-flown sentiments of the later romances; those “wild romantic tales” as a seventeeth century writer described them , “wherein they strain love and honour to that ridiculous height it becomes burlesque.”

It is noticeable also, that running concurrently with this deprecating tone towards the “romantic” there was also a devaluation of the word “imagination”. Imagination, of course, was to be exalted during the Romantic era by Blake and Coleridge as the supreme power of creativity. But to Hobbes the essential element in a poetry was Reason. “Judgement begets the strength and structure and Fancy begets the ornaments of a poem.” The imagination came to be regarded as la folle de logis, in Descartes’ phrase , or, in Dryden’s words as “a wild lawless faculty, that like a high ranging spaniel, must have clogs tied to it lest it outrun judgement”,”. (An Essay of Dramatic Poesie)

How then do we move from the denigration implied by the word “romantic”(and its associate “imagination”) to its exaltation leading us to Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Shelley and Keats and on to what we looked at last time with Charlotte Bronte’s letter.

There grew in the eighteenth century along with the philosohical and rational distrust of imagination, the aesthetic attraction of the romantic setting. “Romantic” here meant “redolent or suggestive of romance; appealing to the imagination or feelings” (O.E.D).

“The word romantic then, from the general meaning of “like the old romances”, came to be used as a descriptive term for the scenes which they describe, old casles, mountains and forests, pastoral plains, waste and solitary places. In the earlier instances of the adjective the literary reference is more or less explicit; but by the eighteenth century it had come to express more generally the newly awakened, but as yet half-conscious, love for wild nature, for mountains and moors, for the “woods, Rivers, or Sea-shores” which Shaftesbury mentions as sought by those “who are deep in a this romantic way” ( Shaftesbury Moralists 1709) .

Dr Johnson the commanding literary figure of the mid-eighteenth century, the generation before the first Romantics, displays both meanings:

Dr. Johnson almost invariably uses the word [ie. “romantic”] with its depreciatory meaning ( “romantic and superfluous”,” ridiculous and romantic” ” romantic absurdities or incredible fictions” etc) was so influenced by the prevalent fashion as to try his unwieldy hand at a landscape of this kind.

When night overshadows a romantick scene, all is stillness, silence and quiet” (The Adventurer No. 108 . 1753.

When the French borrowed the word they at first translated it as romanasque or pittoresque. However, when Rousseau used it directly it as romantique, it was included in the Dictionary of the French Academy in 1798 being defined as Il se dit ordinairement des lieux, des paysages qui rapellent a l’imagination les descriptions des poemes et des romans.(Please excuse my French translation: “it usually refers to the places,the landscapes,scenery which appeal to the imagination in the descriptions of poems and stories” )

Pearsall Smith shows how the French definition underlines the subjective and also literary nature of the word. “In the first place romantic is like interesting,, charming, exciting one of those modern words which desribe, not so much the objective qualities of things, as our response to them, the feelings they arouse in the susceptible spectator. Secondly, it is nature seen through the medium of literature…..It is curious also to note the appearance and popularity of the word picturesque at the same time as romantique for just as romantique means Nature seen through a literary medium , so picturesque was used to descibe words that were like pictures and were seen through the medium of another art, that of painting. Painting and literature had been from ancient times judged and criticized by their relation to Nature; but his curious reversal of the process the projection of art into Nature through the coloured glass of art, and from a consciously literary point of view , is an element that must not be neglected”.

The entry into French then emphasised the subjective quality of the word. Equally interesting and perhaps more far-reaching developments took place when “romantic” was transported to Germany , as with France, in the late seventeenth century. Romantisch appears in a translation of Thomson’s Seasons. Romantic literature and poetry, the literature and poetry of the Middle Ages, were , in contrast with those of classical times, called romantisch ; and from this comparison and contrast the German philosophers and critics evolved that great bugbear of modern criticism, the famous opposition between classical and romantic”.

This was accentuated by the aesthetic differences between Goethe and Schiller but developed into a strenuous cultural dispute furthered by its entry into France from Germany during the revolutionary period. The result was

The romantic poets first in Germany , then in France, were the poets who, scorning and rejecting the models of the past and the received rules of composition prided themselves on their freedom from law, and on their own artistic spontaneity.”

So was developed the association of Romanticism with a scornful attitude to the application of the accepted conventions of art and a spirit of rebelliousness and individualism in his attitude to his art and his role in society.

To summarise on the various meanings we have found for”romantic” and to suggest very briefly their present relevance: on the popular level the connection of “romantic” with “romance means the word retains its association with the sentiment of love. The critical implication associated with “romances” ,however, is retained with the use of the word “romanticising”, always, I think, implying unrealism. The development of the idea of a romantic setting continues, as does the strong subjective attachment to such a setting. “Romantic” as a battle-cry in opposition to classical is less marked-though we are perhaps more conscious of it marking the change betwee the more formal classical music of the eighteenth century and the romanticism of a figure like Beethoven, after the French Revolution. However, the idea of the artist as a challenger and rebel, individualistic and scorning convention might be seen continuing in the twentieth century in the career of poet like Dylan Thomas and indeed it could be said to be the life-style to which the controversial rock star aspires. But perhaps that suggests the idea in its decadence!

(Topic to be continued)

Published by alan

As a retired lecturer in English Literature with the Open University I continue to run reading groups on our literary heritage. This blog seeks to interest readers in enjoying and thinking about a wide range of classic novels, plays and poems

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