Classicism & Romanticism - Neo Classicism and Realism

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Classicism & Romanticism

      The ‘Classical’, in critical usage, has two applications: (1) it designates the literature of ancient Greece and Rome (the works of the ancient Greek and Latin masters being called the ‘classics’); and (2) it describes a style of writing which in practice has come to be opposed to ‘Romantic’.

      Classical and Romantic, however, are related in origin; for, the ideals of classicism are derived from the precepts and practices of the ancients.

      The term ‘Romantic’, which comes from ‘Romance’ (a term originally applied to the medieval stories of love and adventure written in the ‘Romance’ languages), like-wise suffered a shift in usage, and from describing the language in which these stories were written, has come to signify the qualities which characterize the literature written in those languages. Hence it is taken to suggest, by a stretch of the original connotation, a spirit of imaginative freedom, a love of the strange and the remote, a quest of new modes of being as well as a striving for distinctively personal expression.

      Rightly understood, and sampled in their best forms, the two styles of writing do not exclude each other. There is no essential contrariety between them. They can exist in one and the same author and may run alongside of each other in one and the same period of literary history. There was, to be sure, ‘romance’ among the ancients. Glamour and magic, passion and pathos — these are to be found in Homer, Sappho and Virgil, as much as they may be found in any of the so-called ‘Romantic’ or ‘Modern’, says Quiller Couch. Hence, for him the terms do not so much designate two opposed schools of writing, belonging to different periods of literary history and existing independently of each other in a given writer, as two counter-balancing qualities which may, and do, often co-exist. To his mind, the whole difference between the two terms boils down to this: that some men naturally have the sense of form running strong in them, rather than the sense of color; in others, it is the sense of color that is preponderant rather than the sense of form. Hence, according as the one or the other quality predominates in a man, he will be either a Classicist or a Romantic. When, however, either of these tendencies are held in subjection and exercised in moderation, the result will be neither narrowly ‘classical’ nor exclusively ‘romantic’, but a combination of both. Abercrombie actually goes so far as to affirm that the true opposition is not between Classical and Romantic, but between Romantic and Realistic, while the Classical includes both of these.

      Scott - James, however, spells out the distinction not in terms of a difference between the sense of form and the sense of color, but between forms of objective expression and of subjective expression (Goethe, too, drew the distinction on similar lines: ‘classical’ he associated with objective treatment of nature; the subjective way, which was that of Schiller, he designated as ‘romantic’). Accordingly, we may, at the risk of oversimplifying matters, speak of ‘Classical’ and ‘Romantic’ as the poetry of direct statement and the poetry of implication: in E.M.W. Tillyard’s phrase, Poetry Direct and Oblique.

      We may now state the principal as well as the derivative characteristics (which tend to separate the categories further and further) thus (Scott - James happily sums them up for us in these terms):

      Form, outward form, with its attributes of symmetry, balance, order, proportion, reserve, belongs to the Classical. The Romantic tends to emphasize the spirit behind the form — not, however, the formless, but the freedom which is not content with the traditional modes of expression and loves to experiment. (So the two tendencies, on this level, may be taken to represent Tradition versus Experiment.)

      Again while the Classical tends to stress the normal and representative qualities in man, the Romantic stresses the individualistic and solitary in man, and looks for the spirit in strange and unexpected places. While ‘Classical’ speaks of art as the artist’s vision, ‘Romantic’ speaks of it as the Artist’s vision. So, for the one (the Romantic) inspiration is an all-sufficient criterion; while the other lays emphasis on clarity of vision, sharp outlines, mastery of execution, neatness of workmanship, and contour rather than shadow and color. Romantic literature, by contrast, is filled with vague, dreamy sentiments, and has blurred edges (outlines). It leaves much to the imagination and so is rich in suggestion. Scott-James continues his analysis of the distinction as follows:

      On the side of the Classical, we may range such virtues and defects as go with fitness, propriety, measure, restraint, calm, conservatism, authority; on the side of the Romantic are ranged such qualities as we associate with color, excitement, ecstasy, exuberance, liberty, experiment. A further dimension was added to Romanticism when Walter Pater defined it as ‘the addition of strangeness to beauty, of curiosity to desire’. What Pater really meant may not precisely be known; such definitions as his admit of any number of interpretative commentaries. But so far as the essential point of the definition is concerned, we may take it to be what Wordsworth meant by infusing objects with ‘the door and freshness of a dream’. ‘Romanticism’, with this ‘slant’, means a sense of wonder in the beholder, and novelty and magic in the object beheld. The result is a transfiguration of earthly objects by suffusing them with the hues of imagination. Things are no longer beheld in the ‘light of common day’; ‘the film of familiarity’ does not cloud our vision of the essential beauty of things.

      Victor Hugo provides yet another definition of ‘Romanticism’. He spoke of it as ‘Liberalism in literature’. This definition, though by implication unfair to ‘Classicism’, yet hits the mark so far as the appearance of liberal thought at the end of the Middle Ages (the Renaissance in point of its imaginative adventurism was essentially Romantic), and again at the close of the 18th century, is concerned. The early 19th century Romantic movement was parallel in the sphere of art to what the French Revolution had been in political thought. It is essentially a movement that stressed the freedom of imagination and the freedom for the artist to experiment. The romantic artist’s contention in effect was that he should be judged by no formal rules outside of his own creation, that his work was the ultimate frame of reference within which to judge; in short, he was a law unto himself.


      Elizabethan Neo-Classicism, as expounded by Ben Jonson, preached ‘decorum’ and the ‘unities’ in an age when writers, drunk with the spirit of the Renaissance, ran riot with their imagination. Where he saw aesthetic abandon and artistic lawlessness, he prescribed restraint and the classic order. Seeking order, balance, harmony and repose, he took his stand on the precepts and practice of the ancients.

      The 18th-century Neo-Classicism of Pope and others, on the other hand, turned poetry into a mere mechanic art, a matter of rules and dead uniformity (which they called ‘correctness’). The doctrine of ‘correctness’ and ‘good sense’ was too narrow. And Pope became the founder of an artificial style of poetry which never called the moon the moon but ‘sole regent of the night’, and the sun was invariably ‘Phoebus’ or ‘Sol’, and the fish ‘the tinny tribe’. As a result, we find in his poetry, and in that of his tribe, soulless abstractions (in the form of capitalized personifications) encrusted mythologists and standardized (and supposedly poetical) circumlocution. Their poetry is a matter of trained response and cultivated art - not a self-surrender to the creative impulse. (In fairness to Pope, however, we must remember that he spoke of snatching a grace beyond the reach of art).

      Such classicism is far removed from the practice of classical authors. Quiller-Couch condemns it as ‘tawdry overlay’. It was against the sophisticated world of Popean neo-classicism, and the artificiality of its diction, that Wordsworth recoiled and sounded a return to nature and natural diction. The difference between true classicism and neo-classicism is that the first is a living spirit of harmony which excludes no element of life or nature, while the latter is a negative or mechanical application of rules. The’ classical’ writers were something more than Classical, because of the wholeness of their vision (they ‘saw life steadily and saw it whole’). Hence their appeal to the moderns. The neo-classicists, however, produced poetry according to the book and missed the very spirit of the true Classical.

      Arnold, in the 19th century, with his doctrine of ‘high seriousness’ and his counsel to authors to saturate themselves with the subject, leaving expression to take care of itself, was much nearer the tale's classical spirit. Pater attacked the false classicism of those who praised the old because it was old, and invoked the precepts of the ancients without understanding their practice. He prescribed the true Classical, whose authentic charm is that of the well-known tale to which we listen over and over again because it is told so well.

      True classicism found yet another champion, Winckelmann, the 18th century German critic. He had the writer imitate the ancients but in the right spirit. When he wrote that to be great one should follow the ancients, he meant that one must bring to one’s work the same spiritual curiosity and sense of fact which the ancients had brought to theirs. Hence the paradoxical advice of Dr. Young. If you wish to imitate the ancients do not imitate them; for, the less you try to be like them, the more you will be like them.

      As we noted earlier, there is romance in the best of classical literature. But this is held in balance with other elements. The ancients as a type ‘saw life steadily and saw it whole’, as Arnold said of Sophocles. They aimed at the whole truth. So the classical would include romance and yet remain classical. That is why Abercrombie says that the true antithesis of Romanticism is not Classicism but Realism.

      While Romanticism stands for the quest of the strange, the unfamiliar and even a longing for the inaccessible (‘the desire of the moth for the star’), Realism shows an excessive concern for what is immediate and familiar.


      Now, Realism is a principle of art as well as a doctrine or school. As a principle of art (meaning verisimilitude, plausibility, probabilism or ‘authenticity’) it has gone with both Classicism and Romanticism. Jonsonian Classicism was a vigorous drive towards realism of theme and technique in poetry and drama. And the Romantic Wordsworth’s revulsion from the artificiality of Popean poetry resulted in a return to realism of theme and diction. Even in Coleridge’s treatment of the supernatural, there is ‘realism’. The ‘suspension of disbelief, as a necessary condition of art, stresses the importance of realism. It is in this sense, again, that Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is realistic.

      Realism as a doctrine and a school strictly adheres to the facts of life, even reproduces them meticulously. It shows a particular preference for the sordid and unpleasant in life. It contrasts with Romanticism in that it sticks doggedly to the facts of life, particularly the seamy side of it, and tends to be pessimistic, while Romanticism often glosses over the ugly and painful facts of life, idealizes reality, and presents a rosy picture. The Naturalist school (which is ‘realism’ made into a doctrine)— or the slice-of-life school—believes in the literal sense of ‘imitation’: truth to fact or photographic reproduction of reality is taken as an ultimate principle of art. It, however, forgets that ‘realism’ as applied to art consists in the creation of a successful illusion of reality. The reality of art is not to be equated with the reality of life. Dr. Johnson meant the same, though with a slight shift of accent, when he said: “Imitations convince us, not because they are mistaken for reality, but because they bring realities to mind”. Starting from where you do in literature, everything else must follow by a law of necessity and strike us as real, or look probable or convince us (A novelist is only ‘a convincing liar’, said W. Allen. Cp. the artist who crafted Achilles’ shield in Homer’s Iliad ‘Scott-James, p. 30’). But the slice-of-life school, which believes in a close and unflattering reproduction of reality, takes realism as an end in itself, whereas it should only be a means to creating an impression of truthfulness.

      However, Realism is a necessary phase in the evolution of literature. It represents a wholesome reaction when literature gets lost in romantic inanities or puerile sentiment. It becomes necessary, again, when literature is reduced to mere ‘fine fabling’ or is cluttered up with artifice and pretentiousness. But photographic realism is not what we ask for in literature. It is neither possible nor desirable. Art must at all events be selective and symbolic. So the term ‘realism’ must be broadly interpreted to mean a comprehensive regard for the truth of nature - both inner and outer. In this sense, the true Classicist as well as the true Romantic is a realist. The ancients held their realism, as they did their romance, in check and did not permit it to disturb the pattern of life seen as a whole — as a fact as well as an idea. Such realism will have a place for the truth of imagination as well as for the truth of fact. It will balance matter and spirit. It will see life neither as rose pink nor as dirty grub. It will be almost synonymous with ‘classicism’.

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