- Romanticism and Its Discontents by Anita Brookner
Viking, 208 pp, £25.00, September 2000, ISBN 0 670 89212 2
Trying to define Romanticism has always been a typically Romantic activity, especially in France. The word romantisme first appeared in the year of Napoleon’s coronation (1804) and soon began to acquire a large retinue of definitions. Mme de Staël associated it with the misty, melancholy North and declared Romanticism to be primarily an effect of climate. Victor Hugo and his followers allied it to the vanished monarchy, then to the departed Napoleon, and finally to ‘liberalism in art’. Stendhal and Baudelaire produced more durable definitions by linking it to the present. For Stendhal, ‘Romanticism is the art of offering people the literary works which, in the present state of their habits and beliefs, are likely to give them the greatest possible pleasure. Classicism, by contrast, offers them the literature which gave the greatest possible pleasure to their great-grandfathers.’ For Baudelaire, ‘whoever says Romanticism, says modern art.’
In her discreetly original study of Romanticism and Its Discontents, Anita Brookner quotes Alfred de Musset’s satire, Lettres de Dupuis et Cotonet (1836-37). Dupuis and Cotonet are two literal-minded provincials who spend 12 years trying to find out what Romanticism is. At first, it seems to refer to plays which ignore the Classical unities – except in the provinces, where ‘Romantic’ simply means ‘absurd’. But then they discover that there are also Romantic novels, poems, epics and even single lines of verse. In 1827, Hugo’s Préface de Cromwell reveals Romanticism to be a combination of tragedy and comedy. But it also seems to mean the imitation of the Germans, the English and the Spanish. By the mid-1830s, it has something to do with socialism and a refusal to shave or to do one’s National Guard duty. Eventually, they decide that Romanticism is distinguished from Classicism by the use of a lot of vague, colourful adjectives.
If Dupuis and Cotonet had lived for another century and a half, they would have reached previously unsuspected depths of confusion. According to Hans Eichner, it was not until the late 1970s that most scholars finally realised ‘that “Romanticism” is not a technical term like “propanol” or “cosine”, invented to name a precise concept . . . and that any definition capable of encompassing Keats’s sonnet “To Sleep”, Novalis’s Heinrich von Ofterdingen and Hugo’s Hernani must be so broad as to be meaningless.’ The desire for unattainable precision and curious universal truths is also a Romantic trait, and it may be that some of the more ambitious forms of modern literary criticism will come to be seen as a late flowering of the Romantic spirit.
When the various definitions are brought together, they tend to suggest that the Romantics were writers and artists who knew that they were doing something radically different from their fathers but were unable to say precisely what it was. Rimbaud, who wrote his only extended piece of literary history at the age of 16, was probably closer to a good general definition than most professional critics when he identified self-ignorance as the crucial Romantic trait: ‘Romanticism has never been properly judged. Who would have judged it? The critics!? The Romantics, who show so clearly that the song is very rarely the work, which is to say the thought of the singer, sung and understood?’