Mediaevalism in the Romantic age

Also Read

      One of the main threads in the complex web of nineteenth century romanticism in literature is its mediaevalism, that is, heightened interest in the life and legendary lore of the Middle Ages. Indeed, in nineteenth century romanticism; mediaevalism plays such an important part in the romantic revival that Heine saw in it merely the reproduction of the life of the Middle Ages and Prof. Beer defined romanticism "as mediaevalism in art". But the fact is that as Walter Pater has also shrewdly pointed out, mediaevalism is an accidental and not essential characteristic of romance. "The essential elements of the romantic spirit are curiosity and the love of beauty; and it is only as the accidental effects of these qualities that it seeks the Middle Ages; because in the overcharged atmosphere of the Middle Ages, there are unworked sources of romantic effect, of a strange beauty to be won by strong imagination, out of things unlikely or remote." Thus romance drives its votaries into strange bypaths of thought and feeling away from the high road or ordinary life and experience. Coleridge in his poetry and Scott in his novels are exponents of fervent mediaevalism.

It is the glory of Coleridge that he has turned mediaevalism to fine artistic purposes. Earlier writers of romances of the past like Horace Walpole and Anne Radcliffe, in their novels introduced gross and sensational incidents, which make the flesh creep. In their best works they could, of course, create an atmosphere of suspense of mystery.
Romantic mediaevalism

      It is the glory of Coleridge that he has turned mediaevalism to fine artistic purposes. Earlier writers of romances of the past like Horace Walpole and Anne Radcliffe, in their novels introduced gross and sensational incidents, which make the flesh creep. In their best works they could, of course, create an atmosphere of suspense of mystery. But their sense of mystery was not sufficiently refined and delicate. But Coleridge's sense of mystery was subtle, refined and psychological. He purged romance of its physical horrors and distilled it, as it were, through the air of art. He did not use the elements of mediaevalism as decorative stage properties like the earlier writers, but wove them into the very texture of his poem to produce the effect of horror and mystery. What is more, he did not 'give a local habitation and a name' to the horrors but left them vague and indefinite. It is not by descriptions but by subtle suggestions that he creates the atmosphere. Thus it is the "delicacy, the dreamy grace in his presentation of the marvellous that makes Coleridge's works so remarkable."

      The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Christabel are the two masterpieces of supernatural, mediaeval poetry. Both the poems are wrought with the colour of the Middle ages and take us into the veritable mediaeval world. Coleridge was a great scholar and had an intimate and accurate knowledge of mediaeval life, manners, and faith. These he has reproduced with great skill in the two poems The world 'mediaevalism' is apt to draw before our mind's eye visions of battlemented Gothic castles, knights: and ladies gorgeously dressed, minstrels, hermits, feasts and revelries in the baronical halls, fights, tournaments, love, chivalry, Catholic prayer, superstition, magic, witchcraft and so on.

      All these are what we mean by mediaevalism and these are presented in the poems with marvellous insight and art. Yet there is no slavish attempt at merely reproducing a by-gone past by incorporating them into the poem. It is the very spirit and atmosphere of mediaeval life, diffused over the poems through delicate touches that constitute their main charm. The Middle ages seem to live in the poems. In his Waverley novels Scott shows himself as a perfect mediaevalist. Scott had a wonderful genius for vitalising the past. He seemed to be more at home in the by-gone ages of history than in his own time. He could not look upon an old ruined castle or a stream without recalling its historical associations. The past was in his imagination more actual than the present. His historical imagination was stirred by these; he felt their glamour, and he made them live before his readers by his imaginative treatment of them. In the men and women that he has presented in his mediaeval stories he makes us feel that they are real, live human beings like ourselves.

      As Carlyle has put it: "These historical novels have taught men this truth, which looks like a truism.....that the bygone ages of the world were actually filled by living men, not by stale papers, controversies and abstractions of men." It is not the mystical aspects of mediaevalism, but its showy and picturesque externals - the outer rather than the inner life that attracted him more and these live in the pages of his novels. He is a perfect reporter of the mediaeval life, and a better one than a historian. As we read the novels we live again in the past and breathe its atmosphere. The illusion is effective. Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, The Bride of Lammermoor, The Monastery, are some of the notable fictions of mediaeval life, treated with imagination and artistic skill.

Previous Post Next Post