Offering a precise and coherent definition of artistic movements has always been a tempting prospect for whoever seeks to make sense out of our historical and cultural background. One has to confess, that it is equally tempting to approach the Romantic period in an attempt to set fixed chronological boundaries and to attribute predefined literary themes and political interests to this extremely rich age in English literature. Indeed the names of Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Scott, Byron, Shelley and Keats are often associated with the Romantic Movement. Greatly influenced by Lord Byron's writing, the romantic poet quickly became associated with the figure of a rebel or sensitive individual who rejected worldliness, and even, literally, this vulgar material world for a better (p 3); one could thus imagine that the Romantic Poet would also be a political rebel. However, Marilyn Butler immediately questions these clear-cut definitions and stereotypes. First, by pointing out to the fact that the use of the term romantic to define these artists is somewhat anachronistic since the writers themselves never really claimed to belong to an organised school or movement just as the definition of romanticism has always evolved throughout history. The author then reminds us that Romantics, whether in Germany, France or Britain, have not always supported revolutions and radicalism as one could have expected, and that romanticism was initially of a rather conservative nature. Realising that to be objective, it is necessary to look at romanticism from its earliest origins in the late 18th Century, Butler refuses to separate the authors from their historical and social context and reminds us that English Literature at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries needs to be considered as product and part of social experience. By placing these poets into their historical context, Butler refuses to provide a universal definition of romanticism thus pointing towards the unique character or specificity of English Romanticism.
[...] In this identity crisis which English Literature was experiencing around the 1820's, Butler sees the sign of a “transitional” 174) period particularly well illustrated by the contradictions of the liberal and resolutely modern critic, Hazlitt. This age of transition and questioning clearly paved the way for cult of the isolated, introverted literary personality” 174) embodied by writers such as De Quincey or Lamb, who contributed to individualising the writer, thus granting literature with a more modern and expressive dimension. Chapter Conclusion: the question of romanticism in England Butler concludes her study by reminding us that from the intellectual's point of view, 1789-1830 marked a period which England's ancient regime faced radical social change and the threat of revolution” 178). [...]
[...] By placing these poets into their historical context, Butler refuses to provide a universal definition of romanticism thus pointing towards the unique character or specificity of English Romanticism. Chapter The Arts in an Age of Revolution: 1769-1790 Butler begins by stating that is too easy to consider the French Revolution of 1789 as a sudden and unpredictable event. According to her, “social and economic pressures were building-up from the 1760's, if not earlier” 11) and only erupted in Europe and America a few decades later in reaction to a powerful and often corrupt aristocracy. [...]
[...] Novels for the gentry: Austen and Scott Butler begins this chapter by explaining that the late eighteenth century could have well been an age of technical evolution for the novel if more “innovative” writings had not provoked a spirit of suspiciousness over all forms of literary works in the reactionary period. Openly controversial authors such as William Godwin, or feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Hays thus contributed to creating a climate of doubt which later affected very popular authors such as Ann Radcliffe or Maria Edgeworth whose writings were not really a threat to social order. [...]
[...] Butler moves-on to mentioning James Gillray and his famous caricatures. She sees his work as new form of art in the age of mass politics and of public opinion” 53). Gillray worked in a context of “profound suspicion of ideas and of the type of man who holds them” 55) and his art was clearly the best account of this new form of conservatism which emerged in the 1790's. He thus mocked the idealistic revolution and denounces heroism as an imposture. [...]
[...] Though Austen favours the gentry, Butler reminds us that she is critical of the current practice of her class as she is admiring of the ethical theory that sustains 105). Her later works (1813 to 1816) are particularly fierce critiques of the gentry which she often illustrates through the image of the failed paternalist or the gentleman who has lost his values and manners. By the end of Austen's life, the gentry had indeed evolved and its members were “openly pursuing their own material interests, as individuals or as a class” 108). [...]
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