Renascence of Wonder: in Nineteenth Century

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      Theodore Watts-Dunton has characterised the 'romanticism' of the early nineteenth century English literature, as 'the renascence' of the feeling of wonder in poetry and art. The definition is both happy and comprehensive, in so far as it goes. It leads us into the hard core of the romantic temper and imagination. Walter Pater, another incisive critic has defined the romantic character in art as consisting "in the addition of strangeness to beauty." Curiosity and love of beauty are thus the integral parts of the romantic attitude.

Theodore Watts-Dunton has characterised the 'romanticism' of the early nineteenth century English literature, as 'the renascence' of the feeling of wonder in poetry and art.
Renascence of Wonder

      The romantic writer does not see things in 'the light of common day' but adds to them 'the light that never was on land and sea. Things, which to the ordinary men are dull and commonplace, appear to the poet as invested with a celestial light'. A poet, as Wordsworth has said, sees things not by sight alone but through the spectacles of imagination. A ray of fancy shines upon all objects as the poet sees them. Thus by the transfiguring light of his imagination the poet makes the common uncommon and vice versa. This is the proper romantic attitude. The rainbow, the daisy, the west wind, the meadow, the stream, the skylark are objects of beauty even of the ordinary man, but the poet adds curiosity and wonder to the beauty of things. As we read their poems, we are impressed by their imaginative approach and feel that we had never looked upon things in that light. It is this subtle sense of mystery, this intellectual curiosity that distinguishes the literature of the Romantic age from that of the school of Pope.

      The classicists looked upon things through the white light of reason. They cared less for their beauty, than the thought which they inspired. They drew morals and not aesthetic pleasures from Nature. Thus Pope in his Windsor Forest moralises nature rather than appreciated her beauties. Watts-Dunton's famous phrase, "the Renascence of Wonder" thus emphasises this subtle sense of mystery which is found on analysis to be a complex emotion compounded of awe in the presence of the unknown, wonder in the presence of the known and an exquisite response to the manifestations of beauty wherever they may bee found. (Compton-Rickett):

      Though the expression 'Renascence of Wonder' has a general applicability to the romantic writers, it has a special significance as applied to some of the romantic writers like Coleridge, Keats and Scott. Romance drove them into strange bypaths, away from the highway of ordinary life and experience. As a reaction to the dullness and drabness of the present these writers took shelter in the past - in the middle ages the past days of Greece etc. for richer inspirations. They were more or less escapists, who did not altogether eschew reality but transfigured it with the colour of imagination and feelings.

      Coleridge in his three great masterpieces Ancient Mariner, Christabel and Kubla Khan is the exponent of this romantic enthusiasm for the middle ages. It has been finely said: "The very centre of Coleridge's art lies in his faculty of evoking the mystery of things and making it actual; widespread and obsessing." His poems are wrought with the colour and glamour of the middle Ages. They are steeped in the atmosphere of wonder and mystery, proper to the times and are the masterpieces of the poetry of the supernatural. His supernatural is not crude and palpable but highly refined, distilled through the air, as it were. His suggestive art, vivid imagination and finer psychology have made the 'shadows of imagination' into realities and we give to them that "willing suspension of disbelief for the moment which constitutes poetic faith."

      Keats is, in his own way, another great master of mediaevalism and supernaturalism. Isabella, Lamia, The Eve of St Agues, La Belle etc., are some of his greatest achievements in mediaeval and supernatural poetry. The colourful world of the Middle Ages - its chivalry, the elfin Knight, the cruel mysterious lady, the holy saint, spell and enchantment, pomp and grandeur etc., is recreated with a wonderful realism in his poems. His interest in the life and mythology of ancient Greece, 'Hellenism' as it has been called is but an aspect of his romantic sense of the mystery of life.

       [For the 19th century mediaevalism of Scott see Answer to the next Question.]

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