Classicism and Romanticism: M H Abrams and Beyond

A brief introduction to the contrasting visions of Classicism and Romanticism, guided by M H Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp (1953) and invoking the names of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Oscar Wilde, T S Eliot and Bertolt Brecht, among others.

Website version 2005. Lightly revised from the essay "Classicism and Romanticism" in Trevor Pateman,Key Concepts. A Guide to Aesthetics, Criticism and the Arts in Education (London: Falmer Press 1991)

In a famous book, The Mirror and the Lamp (1953), M.H. Abrams distinguishes theories of art and criticism in terms of whether and how they privilege one or more terms or relationships in a set diagrammed like this:

So, some of our oldest theories of art define and value (or, in Plato's case, condemn) art in terms of the relationship of Mimesis which obtains between works of art and the universe, the world to which it relates. This is a major element of Classicism. Likewise, there are long traditions which characterize and value art in terms of its ability to `please and instruct', and consequently focus on the rhetorical or pragmatic relationship between work and audience. There is a line from Greek theories of Catharsis (q.v. `Mimesis and Katharsis' on this website), through the history of rhetoric to contemporary reader - response criticism, as surveyed, for example, in Robert Holub's Reception Theory or in Elizabeth Freund's The Return of the Reader.

One might say that before the Romantic movement (say, 1770 - 1830) most theories of art simply took for granted the unimportance of the relationship between artist and work; where it obtruded itself (as in lyric poetry or the self - portrait), they responded by regarding those genres as minor and not worth theorizing. In the eighteenth century, says Abrams, Shakespeare's sonnets, unlike his plays, were simply ignored or condemned (p. 246).

Romanticism is, then, a critical watershed as well as a permanent possibility of artistic orientation, an orientation which emphasizes and values the work of art as Expressive of the artist's mind. Historically, the Romantic movement - for example, in English poetry and the theorizing of it by Wordsworth and Coleridge - wants the work to be expressive of the artist's emotions and feelings: poetry, says Wordsworth in the `Preface' to theLyrical Ballads (1800), `is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings', not directed in their origin to any external audience, and illuminating the objective world with the lamp of a subjective experience.

In Romanticism as a movement, Poetry - as the expression of emotion - is categorically contrasted with Science, as representation of reality. It is not opposed to prose, which may be poetic or scientific, according to its informing subjective or objective drive.

One might say that there is no reason not to regard as `Romantic' any theory or practice of art which values the self-realization of the artist in his or her work, even when what is realized is more like a vision, or ideas and beliefs, than like a realization of `simple' emotion. In this way one would be led to distinguish the question of whether self-expression or self-realization is important in or defining of art from the question of whether certain traditionally romantic oppositions, such as those between feeling and reason; subjective and objective; emotion and fact, are tenable. There are, of course, many good arguments to suggest that the stock romantic oppositions are untenable. For a survey of the arguments, see David Best's The Rationality of Feeling.

Romanticism as a movement implied and articulated significantly fresh evaluative criteria for art, notably the criteria of sincerity and spontaneity. What we now think of as later aestheticism and decadentism is, in part, a reaction against such criteria as demonstrably inadequate to judge a work of art. Thus Oscar Wilde in `The Decay of Lying' (against, inter alia, Mrs Humphry Ward's Robert Elsmere) and, in another context, Baudelaire's address to the `hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frere', Modern neo-classicism is, one might say, a cleaned-up version of aestheticism and decadence, which insists - in opposition to the romantic orientation and the romantic criteria - on the autonomy of the work of art, on judging the work itself, `the words on the page', all considerations of biography (and hence of sincerity and spontaneity) excluded. Though associated with theorists of conservative and illiberal persuasions, notably the American `New Critics' and T.S. Eliot, neo-classicism has also had its radical spokesmen, foremost among them Brecht, whose epic theatre is consciously anti-romantic (see, for example, Brecht's Messingkauf Dialogues).

Of course, for educationists the Romantic orientation and criteria were and remain of immense importance. This extends beyond the Romantic emphasis on self-expression, sincerity and spontaneity to the connected romantic claim that poetry (art) does not `please and instruct' but is directly effective as an emotionally and, more generally, morally educative force. For Wordsworth, says Abrams, `poetry, by sensitizing, purifying and strengthening the feelings, directly makes us better' (p. 330). John Stuart Mill, in an 1835 essay on Tennyson's poems, states the claim in its grandest terms, speaking of `the noblest end of poetry as an intellectual pursuit, that of acting upon the desires and characters of mankind through their emotions, to raise them towards the perfection of their nature' (cited in Abrams, p. 334).

This is still a characteristic way of justifying the arts in education, the background matrix of which is an equation of imagination, sympathy and moral development . But after Auschwitz, says the German critic Theodor Adorno, such claims are unsustainable. Worse, `to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric' (in Bloch et al., Aesthetics and Politics, pp. 188 - 89). It is worse than insensitive to go on as if the redemptive claims of the Romantic movement had not been hopelessly discredited by history, says Adorno.

Of course, there is an enormous shift in arts education away from the orientations and values of Romanticism, or, more specifically, self - expression, as is evidenced in the work of the arts educationist Peter Abbs in such books as Living Powers and A Is for Aesthetic. Romanticism yields to a neo-classical emphasis on the work itself, on its forms and genres, its traditions and techniques, and arts education becomes less the search for sincerity, spontaneity and self-expression than the patient initiation of pupils into the forms of artistic knowing.

On the other hand, if there is nothing to be known felt, imagined, concretized through the forms of artistic knowing, then they have no more claim to our interest than a parlour game. Deprived of a link to deep human concerns, poetry would be no better than a playstation game.