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The World of the Romanties

ISSUE:  Spring 1937

The Concept of Nature in Nineteenth-Century English Poetry. By Joseph Warren Beach. New York: The Macmillan Company. $5.00. The Decline and Pall of the Romantic Ideal. By F. L. Lucas. New York: The Macmillan Company. $2.50.

Professor beach’s book is one of the major contributions to the history of the nineteenth-century mind. In breadth of scope, in boldness and caution of generalization, in fidelity to detail and to important though easily overlooked distinctions, and in readability, “The Concept of Nature in Nineteenth-Century Poetry” ranks high in the growing volume of expository research now appearing on the so-called Romantic and Victorian eras. Certainly we have needed the synoptic survey which this book provides, though few of us have had both the equipment and the courage to grapple with a subject so large, so beset with snares for unguarded statements, and so bedeviled by controversy over the meaning of words. Not all of the author’s conclusions will strike all readers as wholly acceptable, and many will note a growing thinness in the last hundred pages; but even the most disputatious reader will, I think, admire the workmanship, the modesty of presentation, and the really exciting syntheses which appear in this book. For it deals, as the publishers truly state, with “one of the bravest efforts of the human spirit . . . a massive spiritual evolution accomplished within the space of two centuries,” only to decline with the growing importance of the concepts of biological evolution, and the waning of the transcendental element in the concept of nature, until at last, in our own time, “the . . . poets have given up nature, having found it bankrupt,” and have turned, “orphaned and defrauded,” to other sources of inspiration.

The gist of the work is conveniently stated in Chapter I, “Introduction and Conclusion”—a method to be commended to all who present a large and complicated thesis. The concept of nature which we find running through nineteenth-century English poetry “grew out of the poet’s desire to associate the ‘beauteous forms’ of the out-of-doors world with the laws and order of the universe, reinforcing the esthetic pleasure . . . with the philosophical notion of order and unity, and vice versa, [and] assuming that the order of the universe is purposive, harmonious and, taken in the large, benevolent towards man.” This synthesis was derived from science and religion: from the scientific notion of regular and universal laws, and the religious notion of divine providence. The result, for the literary mind, amounted to a “kind of substitute for . . . [orthodox] religion,” and enabled that mind to pass with ease and comfort from its old form of faith to agnosticism or comparative unbelief, “from medieval Christian faith to the scientific positivism which tends to dominate cultivated minds to-day.”

After examining the roots of the concept in the metaphysical background of the seventeenth and eighteen centuries— in such thinkers as Cudworth, More, Sir Matthew Hale, Robert Boyle, Berkeley, Newton, and Shaftesbury—Professor Beach summarizes the philosophical (always, to some extent, pantheistic) aspect of the concept as the belief that “nature is animated by an active and spiritual principle, since it cannot be accounted for on purely mechanical grounds.” Then there follow chapters on the naturalism of Wordsworth and other Romantics, and on the Platonism and transcendentalism of Shelley, Coleridge, Carlyle, Emerson, and Whitman. The contribution of German ideas is adequately pointed out, and Chapter IX is a very suggestive statement of the nature and influence of naturalism in Goethe. Part III deals with the gradual break-up of the concept in Arnold, Tennyson, Browning, Swinburne, and Meredith. In Part IV the concept is seen disappearing in Hardy and the Post-Victorians, and vanishing in present-day poetry. Space does not permit more than this cataloguing of a very important and well-written part of the book. The last pages of the work point out the present status of the concept: complete collapse, in the works of T. S. Eliot and the “new humanists,” for whom nature bequeaths to us “nothing but what is beastly in us—animal instinct, the cravings of selfhood.” The only solace left is the sense of humanity, and the realization of oneness with the herd of men. Lonely in a bleak and blindly neutral universe, the poets now turn, for their themes, to the Church or to the sense of human solidarity. “Social union among men in a rationally ordered state,” concludes the author, “is enough to engage the energies of men for a long time to come,” and we need hardly look for a revival of the concept of nature for literary creativeness until there appears “a discoverer as great as Newton or Darwin, or a thinker as provocative as Kant or Plato, to offer a new synthesis, and give to nature a new lease of life.”

“The Decline and Fall of the Romantic Ideal,” by F. L. Lucas, proves once more that a subject is never dead or exhausted to the man whose taste is the expression of his vitality. Who would have thought that a book on Romanticism—and an extended definition, at that—could be so fresh, newly illuminating, and actually so absorbing as this book, which Mr. Lucas thinks must be the 11,397th work on the subject? And further, would it have been believed that any critic could levy upon modern theories of the unconscious to throw light on a literary movement, and do so without reducing himself to obscurity and absurdity? Mr. Lucas has done both of these impossible things. With wit, with liberal and stimulating quotation, with remarks of his own that deserve quotation, and above all with the gusto of the critic who judges shrewdly because he has felt, and continues to feel, a real joy in reading literature, he has taken over just enough Freudian thought to make a brilliant sally into the no-man’s-land of “What, in the name of Heaven, w Romanticism?” To put it briefly, he believes that it is nothing more than “the revolt of the unconscious.” He sees civilized man pulled this way and that by three forces: “first, . . . the instinctive impulses of the human animal; secondly, . . . the influences of other human beings . . . ; [and] thirdly, his intelligence [which] presents him [with] . . . what he calls ‘reality.’” The Classicist, on the whole, tends to sacrifice everything to the second of these forces—to “taste,” suitability, form, rules, control, the “decorum” or the “inner check” of the neo-humanists of today. The Realist tends to sacrifice everything to the third force, to what he thinks is, from a “hard-boiled” point of view, “reality.” The Romantic, in turning to “nature,” ecstasy, childhood, the past, the Church, unexploited subjects such as the common man in the late eighteenth century, is but giving expression to his instinctive or preconscious self, in its revolt against the tyrannies of his fellowmen and of “brute fact” in physical law. To be sure, this act is beset by grave dangers: “we have come to know more about the crocodiles of the Unconscious than Chateaubriand knew. . . . Many of the Romantics, especially in France, tried making pets of theirs; some got eaten by them; and many of their pages are wet with the crocodiles’ tears.” But even if Romanticism is thus an act of dreaming, it is nevertheless, says Mr. Lucas, an indestructible element in us, and we might as well express it, give it higher and more controlled expression than either the Classicist or the Realist, respectively, would allow. For “this dream-gift of Dionysus . . . brings release for the soul in chains,” and though it “has wrecked life after life, . . . [has] yet immeasurably enriched the world.” After thus setting forth his account of the psychological basis for the Romantic point of view, the author proceeds to discuss its exaggerations (in Sensationalism, Satanism, and Sadism), its history (including its appearance in unexpected places), its great critic (Coleridge, whose critical reputation he vigorously attempts to deflate), and its last refuge in Iceland, a country he deeply loves. Incidentally, there are bristling pages on which he brilliantly exposes some of the tortuous inconsistencies of Mr. I. A. Richards; others in which he upbraids and ridicules the modern critic for his lack of human dignity, his infantile rebellion, and his essential vulgarity. On the whole, the book does just what any critical work worthy of name has always done: it makes the great pageant of the literary past live again, and it sends us hungry-hearted to the masterpieces themselves, there to read again and to re-experience something that feeds the mind, that enables us once more to possess our souls. The Romantic ideal rose; it declined, and it has fallen: but the stuff of Romantic experience still remains in every one of us, and if we are to retain our balance we shall recognize its dignity and give it expression worthy of its basic importance.


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