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Preface

The present volume is a sequel to "A History of English Romanticism in the Eighteenth Century" (New York; Henry Holt & Co., 1899). References in the footnotes to "Volume I." are to that work. The difficulties of this second part of my undertaking have been of a kind just opposite to those of the first. As it concerns my subject, the eighteenth century was an age of beginnings; and the problem was to discover what latent romanticism existed in the writings of a period whose spirit, upon the whole, was distinctly unromantic. But the temper of the nineteenth century has been, until recent years, prevailingly romantic in the wider meaning of the word. And as to the more restricted sense in which I have chosen to employ it, the mediaevalising literature of the nineteenth century is at least twenty times as great as that of the eighteenth, both in bulk and in value. Accordingly the problem here is one of selection; and of selection not from a list of half-forgotten names, like Warton and Hurd, but from authors whose work is still the daily reading of all educated readers.

As I had anticipated, objection has been made to the narrowness of my definition of romanticism. But every writer has a right to make his own definitions; or, at least, to say what his book shall be about. I have not written a history of the "liberal movement in English literature"; nor of the "renaissance of wonder"; nor of the "emancipation of the ego." Why not have called the book, then, "A History of the Mediaeval Revival in England"? Because I have a clear title to the use of romantic in one of its commonest acceptations; and, for myself, I prefer the simple dictionary definition, "pertaining to the style of the Christian and popular literature of the Middle Ages," to any of those more pretentious explanations which seek to express the true inwardness of romantic literature by analysing it into its elements, selecting one of these elements as essential, and rejecting all the rest as accidental.

M. Brunetière; for instance, identifies romanticism with lyricism. It is the "emancipation of the ego." This formula is made to fit Victor Hugo, and it will fit Byron. But M. Brunetière would surely not deny that Walter Scott's work is objective and dramatic quite as often as it is lyrical. Yet what Englishman will be satisfied with a definition of romantic which excludes Scott? Indeed, M. Brunetière himself is respectful to the traditional meaning of the word. "Numerous definitions," he says, "have been given of Romanticism, and still others are continually being offered; and all, or almost all of them, contain a part of the truth. Mme. de Staël was right when she asserted in her 'Allemagne' that Paganism and Christianity, the North and the South, antiquity and the Middle Ages, having divided between them the history of literature, Romanticism in consequence, in contrast to Classicism, was a combination of chivalry, the Middle Ages, the literatures of the North, and Christianity. It should be noted, in this connection, that some thirty years later Heinrich Heine, in the book in which he will rewrite Mme. de Staël's, will not give such a very different idea of Romanticism." And if, in an analysis of the romantic movement throughout Europe, any single element in it can lay claim to the leading place, that element seems to me to be the return of each country to its national past; in other words, mediaevalism.

A definition loses its usefulness when it is made to connote too much. Professor Herford says that the "organising conception" of his "Age of Wordsworth" is romanticism. But if Cowper and Wordsworth and Shelley are romantic, then almost all the literature of the years 1798-1830 is romantic. I prefer to think of Cowper as a naturalist, of Shelley as an idealist, and of Wordsworth as a transcendental realist, and to reserve the name romanticist for writers like Scott, Coleridge, and Keats; and I think the distinction a serviceable one. Again, I have been censured for omitting Blake from my former volume. The omission was deliberate, not accidental, and the grounds for it were given in the preface. Blake was not discovered until rather late in the nineteenth century. He was not a link in the chain of influence which I was tracing. I am glad to find my justification in a passage of Mr. Saintsbury's "History of Nineteenth Century Literature" (p. 13): "Blake exercised on the literary history of his time no influence, and occupied in it no position. . . . The public had little opportunity of seeing his pictures, and less of reading his books. . . . He was practically an unread man."

But I hope that this second volume may make more clear the unity of my design and the limits of my subject. It is scarcely necessary to add that no absolute estimate is attempted of the writers whose works are described in this history. They are looked at exclusively from a single point of view.

H. A. B.

April, 1901.

Henry Augustin Beers