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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Classic and the Romantic in Literature
By Walter Pater (1839–1894)
 
A Postscript in ‘Appreciations’

  “In wine ’tis the age we praise,
But the fresher bloom in lays.”

THE WORDS classical and romantic, although, like many other critical expressions, sometimes abused by those who have understood them too vaguely or too absolutely, yet define two real tendencies in the history of art and literature. Used in an exaggerated sense, to express a greater opposition between those tendencies than really exists, they have at times tended to divide people of taste into opposite camps. But in that House Beautiful which the creative minds of all generations—the artists and those who have treated life in the spirit of art—are always building together for the refreshment of the human spirit, these oppositions cease; and the Interpreter of the House Beautiful, the true æsthetic critic, uses these divisions only so far as they enable him to enter into the peculiarities of the objects with which he has to do. The term classical, fixed as it is to a well-defined literature and a well-defined group in art, is clear, indeed; but then it has often been used in a hard and merely scholastic sense, by the praisers of what is old and accustomed, at the expense of what is new,—by critics who would never have discovered for themselves the charm of any work, whether new or old; who value what is old, in art or literature, for its accessories, and chiefly for the conventional authority that has gathered about it,—people who would never really have been made glad by any Venus fresh-risen from the sea, and who praise the Venus of old Greece and Rome only because they fancy her grown now into something staid and tame.  1
  And as the term classical has been used in a too absolute, and therefore in a misleading sense, so the term romantic has been used much too vaguely, in various accidental senses. The sense in which Scott is called a romantic writer is chiefly this: that in opposition to the literary tradition of the last century, he loved strange adventure, and sought it in the Middle Age. Much later, in a Yorkshire village, the spirit of romanticism bore a more really characteristic fruit in the work of a young girl, Emily Brontë,—the romance of ‘Wuthering Heights’; the figures of Hareton Earnshaw, of Catherine Linton, and of Heathcliff tearing open Catherine’s grave, removing one side of her coffin, that he may really lie beside her in death,—figures so passionate, yet woven on a background of delicately beautiful moorland scenery, being typical examples of that spirit. In Germany, again, that spirit is shown less in Tieck, its professional representative, than in Meinhold, the author of ‘Sidonia the Sorceress’ and the ‘Amber-Witch.’ In Germany and France, within the last hundred years, the term has been used to describe a particular school of writers: and consequently, when Heine criticizes the Romantic School in Germany,—that movement which culminated in Goethe’s ‘Goetz von Berlichingen’; or when Théophile Gautier criticizes the romantic movement in France,—where indeed it bore its most characteristic fruits, and its play is hardly yet over; where, by a certain audacity, or bizarrerie of motive, united with faultless literary execution, it still shows itself in imaginative literature;—they use the word with an exact sense of special artistic qualities, indeed; but use it nevertheless with a limited application to the manifestation of those qualities at a particular period. But the romantic spirit is in reality an ever present, an enduring principle, in the artistic temperament; and the qualities of thought and style which that and other similar uses of the word romantic really indicate, are indeed but symptoms of a very continuous and widely working influence.  2
  Though the words classical and romantic, then, have acquired an almost technical meaning in application to certain developments of German and French taste, yet this is but one variation of an old opposition, which may be traced from the very beginning of the formation of European art and literature. From the first formation of anything like a standard of taste in these things, the restless curiosity of their more eager lovers necessarily made itself felt in the craving for new motives, new subjects of interest, new modifications of style. Hence the opposition between the classicists and the romanticists; between the adherents, in the culture of beauty, of the principles of liberty and authority respectively,—of strength, and order or what the Greeks called [Greek].  3
  Sainte-Beuve, in the third volume of the ‘Causeries du Lundi,’ has discussed the question, “What is meant by a classic?” It was a question he was well fitted to answer, having himself lived through many phases of taste, and having been in earlier life an enthusiastic member of the romantic school; he was also a great master of that sort of “philosophy of literature” which delights in tracing traditions in it, and the way in which various phases of thought and sentiment maintain themselves, through successive modifications, from epoch to epoch. His aim, then, is to give the word classic a wider, and as he says, a more generous sense than it commonly bears; to make it expressly grandiose et flottant: and in doing this, he develops, in a masterly manner, those qualities of measure, purity, temperance, of which it is the especial function of classical art and literature—whatever meaning, narrower or wider, we attach to the term—to take care.  4
  The charm, therefore, of what is classical, in art or literature, is that of the well-known tale, to which we can nevertheless listen over and over again, because it is told so well. To the absolute beauty of its artistic form is added the accidental, tranquil charm of familiarity. There are times, indeed, at which these charms fail to work on our spirits at all, because they fail to excite us. “Romanticism,” says Stendhal, “is the art of presenting to people the literary works which, in the actual state of their habits and beliefs, are capable of giving them the greatest possible pleasure; classicism, on the contrary, of presenting them with that which gave the greatest possible pleasure to their grandfathers.” But then, beneath all changes of habits and beliefs, our love of that mere abstract proportion—of music—which what is classical in literature possesses, still maintains itself in the best of us, and what pleased our grandparents may at least tranquillize us. The “classic” comes to us out of the cool and quiet of other times, as the measure of what a long experience has shown will at least never displease us. And in the classical literature of Greece and Rome, as in the classics of the last century, the essentially classical element is that quality of order in beauty, which they possess indeed in a pre-eminent degree, and which impresses some minds to the exclusion of everything else in them.  5
  It is the addition of strangeness to beauty, that constitutes the romantic character in art; and the desire of beauty being a fixed element in every artistic organization, it is the addition of curiosity to this desire of beauty, that constitutes the romantic temper. Curiosity, and the desire of beauty, have each their place in art, as in all true criticism. When one’s curiosity is deficient, when one is not eager enough for new impressions and new pleasures, one is liable to value mere academical properties too highly, to be satisfied with worn-out or conventional types, with the insipid ornament of Racine, or the prettiness of that later Greek sculpture which passed so long for true Hellenic work; to miss those places where the handiwork of nature, or of the artist, has been most cunning; to find the most stimulating products of art a mere irritation. And when one’s curiosity is in excess, when it overbalances the desire of beauty, then one is liable to value in works of art what is inartistic in them; to be satisfied with what is exaggerated in art, with productions like some of those of the romantic school in Germany; not to distinguish jealously enough between what is admirably done, and what is done not quite so well,—in the writings, for instance, of Jean Paul. And if I had to give instances of these defects, then I should say that Pope, in common with the age of literature to which he belonged, had too little curiosity,—so that there is always a certain insipidity in the effect of his work, exquisite as it is; and coming down to our own time, that Balzac had an excess of curiosity—curiosity not duly tempered with the desire of beauty.  6
  But however falsely those two tendencies may be opposed by critics, or exaggerated by artists themselves, they are tendencies really at work at all times in art; molding it, with the balance sometimes a little on one side, sometimes a little on the other; generating, respectively, as the balance inclines on this side or that, two principles, two traditions, in art, and in literature so far as it partakes of the spirit of art. If there is a great overbalance of curiosity, then we have the grotesque in art; if the union of strangeness and beauty, under very difficult and complex conditions, be a successful one, if the union be entire, then the resultant beauty is very exquisite, very attractive. With a passionate care for beauty, the romantic spirit refuses to have it unless the condition of strangeness be first fulfilled. Its desire is for a beauty born of unlikely elements, by a profound alchemy, by a difficult initiation, by the charm which wrings it even out of terrible things; and a trace of distortion, of the grotesque, may perhaps linger, as an additional element of expression, about its ultimate grace. Its eager, excited spirit will have strength, the grotesque, first of all: the trees shrieking as you tear off the leaves; for Jean Valjean, the long years of convict life; for Redgauntlet, the quicksands of Solway Moss; then, incorporate with this strangeness, and intensified by restraint, as much sweetness, as much beauty, as is compatible with that. “Énergique, frais, et dispos”—these, according to Sainte-Beuve, are the characteristics of a genuine classic: “les ouvrages anciens ne sont pas classiques parce qu’ils sont vieux, mais parce qu’ils sont énergiques, frais, et dispos.” Energy, freshness, intelligent and masterly disposition,—these are characteristics of Victor Hugo when his alchemy is complete: in certain figures, like Marius and Cosette; in certain scenes, like that in the opening of ‘Les Travailleurs de la Mer,’ where Déruchette writes the name of Gilliatt in the snow, on Christmas morning: but always there is a certain note of strangeness discernible there, as well.  7
  The essential elements, then, of the romantic spirit are curiosity and the love of beauty; and it is only as an illustration of these qualities that it seeks the Middle Age, because, in the overcharged atmosphere of the Middle Age, there are unworked sources of romantic effect, of a strange beauty, to be won, by strong imagination, out of things unlikely or remote.  8
  Few, probably, now read Madame de Staël’s ‘De l’Allemagne,’ though it has its interest,—the interest which never quite fades out of work really touched with the enthusiasm of the spiritual adventurer, the pioneer in culture. It was published in 1810, to introduce to French readers a new school of writers—the romantic school, from beyond the Rhine; and it was followed, twenty-three years later, by Heine’s ‘Romantische Schule,’ as at once a supplement and a correction. Both these books, then, connect romanticism with Germany, with the names especially of Goethe and Tieck; and to many English readers, the idea of romanticism is still inseparably connected with Germany—that Germany which, in its quaint old towns, under the spire of Strassburg or the towers of Heidelberg, was always listening in rapt inaction to the melodious, fascinating voices of the Middle Age, and which, now that it has got Strassburg back again, has, I suppose, almost ceased to exist. But neither Germany with its Goethe and Tieck, nor England with its Byron and Scott, is nearly so representative of the romantic temper as France, with Murger and Gautier and Victor Hugo. It is in French literature that its most characteristic expression is to be found; and that, as most closely derivative, historically, from such peculiar conditions as ever reinforce it to the utmost.  9
  For although temperament has much to do with the generation of the romantic spirit, and although this spirit, with its curiosity, its thirst for a curious beauty, may be always traceable in excellent art (traceable even in Sophocles),—yet still, in a limited sense, it may be said to be a product of special epochs. Outbreaks of this spirit, that is, come naturally with particular periods: times when, in men’s approaches towards art and poetry, curiosity may be noticed to take the lead; when men come to art and poetry with a deep thirst for intellectual excitement, after a long ennui, or in reaction against the strain of outward, practical things: in the later Middle Age, for instance; so that mediæval poetry, centring in Dante, is often opposed to Greek and Roman poetry, as romantic poetry to the classical. What the romanticism of Dante is, may be estimated, if we compare the lines in which Virgil describes the hazel-wood, from whose broken twigs flows the blood of Polydorus,—not without the expression of a real shudder at the ghastly incident,—with the whole canto of the ‘Inferno,’ into which Dante has expanded them, beautifying and softening it, meanwhile, by a sentiment of profound pity. And it is especially in that period of intellectual disturbance immediately preceding Dante, amid which the Romance languages define themselves at last, that this temper is manifested. Here, in the literature of Provence, the very name of romanticism is stamped with its true signification: here we have indeed a romantic world, grotesque even, in the strength of its passions, almost insane in its curious expression of them, drawing all things into its sphere, making the birds—nay, lifeless things—its voices and messengers; yet so penetrated with the desire for beauty and sweetness that it begets a wholly new species of poetry, in which the Renaissance may be said to begin. The last century was pre-eminently a classical age; an age in which, for art and literature, the element of a comely order was in the ascendant; which, passing away, left a hard battle to be fought between the classical and the romantic schools. Yet it is in the heart of this century of Goldsmith and Stothard, of Watteau and the ‘Siècle de Louis XIV.,’—in one of its central, if not most characteristic figures, in Rousseau,—that the modern or French romanticism really originates. But what in the eighteenth century is but an exceptional phenomenon, breaking through its fair reserve and discretion only at rare intervals, is the habitual guise of the nineteenth: breaking through it perpetually, with a feverishness, an incomprehensible straining and excitement, which all experience to some degree, but yearning also, in the genuine children of the romantic school, to be énergique, frais, et dispos,—for those qualities of energy, freshness, comely order; and often, in Murger, in Gautier, in Victor Hugo, for instance, with singular felicity attaining them.  10
  It is in the terrible tragedy of Rousseau, in fact, that French romanticism, with much else, begins: reading his ‘Confessions,’ we seem actually to assist at the birth of this new, strong spirit in the French mind. The wildness which has shocked so many, and the fascination which has influenced almost every one, in the squalid yet eloquent figure, we see and hear so clearly in that book, wandering under the apple blossoms and among the vines of Neuchâtel or Vevey, actually give it the quality of a very successful romantic invention. His strangeness or distortion, his profound subjectivity, his passionateness,—the cor laceratum,—Rousseau makes all men in love with these. “Je ne suis fait comme aucun de ceux que j’ai sus. Mais si je ne vaux pas mieux, au moins je suis autre.” (I am not made like any one else I have ever known. Yet, if I am not better, at least I am different.) These words, from the first page of the ‘Confessions,’ anticipate all the Werthers, Renés, Obermanns, of the last hundred years. For Rousseau did but anticipate a trouble in the spirit of the whole world; and thirty years afterwards, what in him was a peculiarity, became part of the general consciousness. A storm was coming: Rousseau with others felt it in the air, and they helped to bring it down; they introduced a disturbing element into French literature, then so trim and formal, like our own literature of the age of Queen Anne.  11
  In 1815 the storm had come and gone, but had left, in the spirit of “young France,” the ennui of an immense disillusion. In the last chapter of Edgar Quinet’s ‘Révolution Française,’ a work itself full of irony, of disillusion, he distinguishes two books, Senancour’s ‘Obermann’ and Chateaubriand’s ‘Génie du Christianisme,’ as characteristic of the first decade of the present century. In those two books we detect already the disease and the cure: in ‘Obermann’ the irony, refined into a plaintive philosophy of “indifference”; in Chateaubriand’s ‘Génie du Christianisme,’ the refuge from a tarnished actual present, a present of disillusion, into a world of strength and beauty in the Middle Age, as at an earlier period—in ‘René’ and ‘Atala’—into the free play of them in savage life. It is to minds in this spiritual situation, weary of the present, but yearning for the spectacle of beauty and strength, that the works of French romanticism appeal. They set a positive value on the intense, the exceptional: and a certain distortion is sometimes noticeable in them, as in conceptions like Victor Hugo’s Quasimodo or Gwynplaine,—something of a terrible grotesque, of the macabre, as the French themselves call it; though always combined with perfect literary execution, as in Gautier’s ‘La Morte Amoureuse,’ or the scene of the “maimed” burial rites of the player, dead of the frost, in his ‘Capitaine Fracasse,’—true “flowers of the yew.” It becomes grim humor in Victor Hugo’s combat of Gilliatt with the devil-fish; or the incident, with all its ghastly comedy drawn out at length, of the great gun detached from its fastenings on shipboard, in ‘Quatre-Vingt-Treize’ (perhaps the most terrible of all the accidents that can happen by sea); and in the entire episode, in that book, of the Convention. Not less surely does it reach a genuine pathos: for the habit of noting and distinguishing one’s own most intimate passages of sentiment makes one sympathetic; begetting, as it must, the power of entering, by all sorts of finer ways, into the intimate recesses of other minds: so that pity is another quality of romanticism; both Victor Hugo and Gautier being great lovers of animals and charming writers about them, and Murger being unrivaled in the pathos of his ‘Scènes de la Vie de Jeunesse.’ Penetrating so finely into all situations which appeal to pity,—above all, into the special or exceptional phases of such feeling,—the romantic humor is not afraid of the quaintness or singularity of its circumstances or expression; pity, indeed, being of the essence of humor: so that Victor Hugo does but turn his romanticism into practice, in his hunger and thirst after practical Justice!—a justice which shall no longer wrong children or animals, for instance, by ignoring, in a stupid, mere breadth of view minute facts about them. Yet the romanticists are antinomian too, sometimes; because the love of energy and beauty, of distinction in passion, tended naturally to become a little bizarre, plunging into the Middle Age, into the secrets of old Italian story. “Are we in the Inferno?”—we are tempted to ask, wondering at something malign in so much beauty. For over all a care for the refreshment of the human spirit by fine art manifests itself, a predominant sense of literary charm; so that, in their search for the secret of exquisite expression, the romantic school went back to the forgotten world of early French poetry, and literature itself became the most delicate of the arts,—like “goldsmith’s work,” says Sainte-Beuve, of Bertrand’s ‘Gaspard de la Nuit,’—and that peculiarly French gift, the gift of exquisite speech, argute loqui, attained in them a perfection which it had never seen before.  12
  Stendhal—a writer whom I have already quoted, and of whom English readers might well know much more than they do—stands between the earlier and later growths of the romantic spirit. His novels are rich in romantic quality; and his other writings—partly criticism, partly personal reminiscences—are a very curious and interesting illustration of the needs out of which romanticism arose. In his book on ‘Racine and Shakespeare,’ Stendhal argues that all good art was romantic in its day; and this is perhaps true in Stendhal’s sense. That little treatise, full of “dry light” and fertile ideas, was published in the year 1823; and its object is to defend an entire independence and liberty in the choice and treatment of subject, both in art and literature, against those who upheld the exclusive authority of precedent. In pleading the cause of romanticism, therefore, it is the novelty, both of form and of motive, in writings like the ‘Hernani’ of Victor Hugo (which soon followed it, raising a storm of criticism), that he is chiefly concerned to justify. To be interesting and really stimulating, to keep us from yawning even, art and literature must follow the subtle movements of that nimbly shifting Time-Spirit, or Zeit-Geist, understood by French not less than by German criticism, which is always modifying men’s taste, as it modifies their manners and their pleasures. This, he contends, is what all great workmen had always understood. Dante, Shakespeare, Molière, had exercised an absolute independence in their choice of subject and treatment. To turn always with that ever-changing spirit, yet to retain the flavor of what was admirably done in past generations,—in the classics, as we say,—is the problem of true romanticism. “Dante,” he observes, “was pre-eminently the romantic poet. He adored Virgil, yet he wrote the ‘Divine Comedy,’ with the episode of Ugolino, which is as unlike the ‘Æneid’ as can possibly be. And those who thus obey the fundamental principle of romanticism, one by one become classical, and are joined to that ever-increasing common league, formed by men of all countries, to approach nearer and nearer to perfection.”  13
  Romanticism, then, although it has its epochs, is in its essential characteristics rather a spirit which shows itself at all times, in various degrees, in individual workmen and their work, and the amount of which criticism has to estimate in them taken one by one, than the peculiarity of a time or a school. Depending on the varying proportion of curiosity and the desire of beauty,—natural tendencies of the artistic spirit at all times,—it must always be partly a matter of individual temperament. The eighteenth century in England has been regarded as almost exclusively a classical period; yet William Blake, a type of so much which breaks through what are conventionally thought the influences of that century, is still a noticeable phenomenon in it, and the reaction in favor of naturalism in poetry begins in that century early. There are, thus, the born romanticists and the born classicists. There are the born classicists who start with form: to whose minds the comeliness of the old, immemorial, well-recognized types in art and literature have revealed themselves impressively; who will entertain no matter which will not go easily and flexibly into them; whose work aspires only to be a variation upon, or study from, the older masters. “’Tis art’s decline, my son!” they are always saying to the progressive element in their own generation; to those who care for that which in fifty years’ time every one will be caring for. On the other hand, there are the born romanticists, who start with an original, untried matter, still in fusion; who conceive this vividly, and hold by it as the essence of their work; who, by the very vividness and heat of their conception, purge away, sooner or later, all that is not organically appropriate to it, till the whole effect adjusts itself in clear, orderly, proportionate form; which form, after a very little time, becomes classical in its turn.  14
  The romantic or classical character of a picture, a poem, a literary work, depends, then, on the balance of certain qualities in it; and in this sense, a very real distinction may be drawn between good classical and good romantic work. But all critical terms are relative; and there is at least a valuable suggestion in that theory of Stendhal’s, that all good art was romantic in its day. In the beauties of Homer and Pheidias, quiet as they now seem, there must have been, for those who confronted them for the first time, excitement and surprise,—the sudden, unforeseen satisfaction of the desire of beauty. Yet the Odyssey, with its marvelous adventure, is more romantic than the Iliad; which nevertheless contains, among many other romantic episodes, that of the immortal horses of Achilles, who weep at the death of Patroclus. Æschylus is more romantic than Sophocles, whose ‘Philoctetes,’ were it written now, might figure, for the strangeness of its motive and the perfectness of its execution, as typically romantic; while of Euripides it may be said that his method in writing his plays is to sacrifice readily almost everything else, so that he may attain the fullness of a single romantic effect. These two tendencies, indeed, might be applied as a measure or standard all through Greek and Roman art and poetry, with very illuminating results: and for an analyst of the romantic principle in art, no exercise would be more profitable than to walk through the collection of classical antiquities at the Louvre, or the British Museum, or to examine some representative collection of Greek coins, and note how the element of curiosity, of the love of strangeness, insinuates itself into classical design, and record the effects of the romantic spirit there, the traces of struggle, of the grotesque even, though overbalanced here by sweetness; as in the sculpture of Chartres and Rheims, the real sweetness of mind in the sculptor is often overbalanced by the grotesque, by the rudeness of his strength.  15
  Classicism, then, means for Stendhal, for that younger enthusiastic band of French writers whose unconscious method he formulated into principles, the reign of what is pedantic, conventional, and narrowly academical in art; for him, all good art is romantic. To Sainte-Beuve, who understands the term in a more liberal sense, it is the characteristic of certain epochs, of certain spirits in every epoch, not given to the exercise of original imagination, but rather to the working out of refinements of manner on some authorized matter; and who bring to their perfection in this way the elements of sanity, of order and beauty in manner. In general criticism, again, it means the spirit of Greece and Rome, of some phases in literature and art that may seem of equal authority with Greece and Rome, the age of Louis the Fourteenth, the age of Johnson; though this is at best an uncritical use of the term, because in Greek and Roman work there are typical examples of the romantic spirit. But explain the terms as we may, in application to particular epochs, there are these two elements always recognizable; united in perfect art,—in Sophocles, in Dante, in the highest work of Goethe, though not always absolutely balanced there: and these two elements may be not inappropriately termed the classical and romantic tendencies.  16
 
 
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