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  • Writer's pictureShawn McNulty-Kowal

A Discussion on How Romanticism Anticipated Modernism

The romantic period, a literary period known for its acute attention to human emotion, reaction and its focus on beauty found in natural daily happenings, took Britain’s literature scene by storm during one of the most historically eventful periods in English history. Often times, writing is influenced by political events and the romantic writer seemed to have understood this relationship. One aspect of romanticism that is pretty characteristic of the literary period is how romantic writers would write pieces that described very visceral and intellectual reactions to events as opposed to focusing on the scenes and occurrences that the reactions stem from. romanticism emphasized: the individual, the beautiful, the subjective, the irrational, the imaginative, the emotional. These points of interest counter with the ideals of classical literature, However, they do overlap with some of the defining traits of modernist literature. In some ways, the romantic period anticipated the modernist period.

That interdependent relationship is mostly seen in the way romantic writers shared prose and poems that mainly highlighted reactions to events and how modernist writers responded by sharing prose and poems that rejected previously accepted social norms and confronted social norms in a way that promoted mindful participation from their audiences. While romantic artists focused on their personal reactions to events, modernist artists created art that focused on the reaction felt by individuals who thought deeply on the piece of artwork. The romantic period was the first literary period to reject previously accepted ideals and construct new points of interest. The modernist period responded by challenging and confronting traditional values and creating art that reflected that confrontation. In turn, the romantic writer archetype was self-reflective, introspective, and solitary and the modernist writer archetype was detached, remote, and experimental. These characteristics are indicative of how romanticism anticipated modernism; one must first become comfortable with feeling introspective and solitary before feeling the desire to experiment with those internal thoughts. In order to experiment, one must first become familiar and comfortable with the seemingly mundane and the thoughts that surround it. Some other ways romanticism anticipated modernism is through romanticism’s attention to setting and form. The discomfort that surrounded urban backdrops was turned familiar in modernist pieces of work and form was taken from less formal (i.e.; found in romantic poetry) to free verse (i.e.; found in modernist poetry). Modernism was anticipated by romanticism in such a way that resembles that of a character developing in a written piece of work: from introspective to experimental, from self-reflective to confrontational, from indignant towards societal norms to constructing new ones. Modernism and romanticism were both transformative literary periods in their own rights and shared seemingly revolutionary aspirations that the literature world was previously unfamiliar with, but in retrospect the development from romanticism to modernism was only expected.

One defining characteristic of the romantic period of literature is the concept of writing about one’s reactions to an event as opposed to putting the main focus on the event itself. In Hoxie Neale Fairchild’s The Romantic Quest, he writes, “…man long endeavors to give the unknown something of the firmness and tangibility of the known. He not only fills the unknown with his illusions, but makes those illusions as concrete and specific as possible” (p. 245). This quotation refers to the idea that romantic writing is known for grappling with reactions and thoughts in relation to a transformative event by route of connecting it to a concrete image that reader’s can hold onto. The romantic writer is more concerned with introspectiveness and the beauty that comes with it as opposed to the result or conclusion that is reached once inner thought has ended. It is interesting to see how this emphasis on emotional self-reflection is taken a step further with modernist text. If the romantic writer is mostly concerned with emotion and imagination, then the modernist writer is concerned with how the self-reflection was revealed. The modernist is experimental and confrontational in creative writing. The modernist writer will not only dwell on introspective thoughts, but will also think about how that self-reflection came to fruition – “What event or issue resulted in my reflection?” is what the modernist writer grapples with in her essay. That goes to say that the romantic writer opened the door for modernist writers to appreciate introspectiveness, but the modernist writers took that inner-dialogue further and interrogated the root cause of it.

William Wordsworth alludes to this creative development in his preface to Lyrical Ballads, “…being less under the influence of social vanity they [romantic period writers] convey their feelings and notions in simple and unelaborated expression” (p. 135). This goes to show that while the style of art differs between the modern artist (abstract and ambiguous) and the romantic artist (easy-to-digest and fantastical), the reason behind choosing to express art in this way is what links the two artists and the two artistic periods. The romantic period – the first literary period to deviate from the norm or the expected approach to writing –focused more on the imaginative, the emotional, and the personal in order to express imagination and a rejection of traditional values. This expression through text emphasized aesthetically pleasing and more mythical values. The modernist period nodded to this deviation from traditional values and took initiative to confront its audience with more abstract and incoherent styles and form. In doing so, while perhaps not taking a liking towards their artwork, the modernist artist certainly approached their work in a similar way that the romantic artist did. This approach is described in the introduction to The Twentieth Century and After, “Eliot [modern writer] also introduced into modern English and American poetry…shifting from formal to the colloquial…the high modernists wrote in the wake of the shattering of confidence in the old certainties…” (Norton 969-73). It almost seemed as though if the romantic period was home to artists who desired a societal shift in artistic interests, emotional focus, and imaginative cognizance, then the modernist period was home to artists who completely dismantled what was considered socially and artfully acceptable.

Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Wordsworth both discuss, in their respective academic pieces, the importance of writing about and bringing to light aspects and traditions of rural living. This is so important to them because romanticism was a revolutionary period for writing and rural life was never written about – in previous periods, the aristocracy was the main focus of literary works. Romanticism was a period home to authors who aimed to connect with readers of the “common” class. In order to do so, romantic writers discussed the beauty of the countryside, which was held in stark contrast against the wasteland also known as the city (agree to disagree, Wordsworth). Rustic living is in and of itself a simple way of existing and romantic poetry focused on uncovering the beautifully sublime even in the simplest of things – rural life was the perfect, scenic route to take on this obsession with the simply sublime. Wordsworth suggests this when he writes,

“Low and rustic life was generally chosen, because in that condition, the essential passions of the heart fins a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language…our elementary feelings co-exist in a state of greater simplicity” (Norton 135).

This attention paid to rural living is mentioned by Shelley in his A Defence of Poetry, and it goes even further to suggest that poets are so cognizant and so insightful that something so simple, like rural life, is pleasurable to write on because there is an abundance of beauty behind it. “Those in whom it exists in excess are poets, in the most universal sense of the word; and the pleasure resulting from the manner in which they express the influence of society or nature upon their own minds, communicates itself to others, and gathers a sort of reduplication from that community” (Norton 433). In this excerpt from his academic work, Shelley alludes to the idea that writing about pleasure you feel will have a ripple effect on the audience who reads it. This correlates to modernist art pieces – modernist works of art rely heavily on the hope that its audience will have some sort of profound reaction to the piece of art resulting in mindful participation from onlookers. This correlation between the two periods is also seen in how both romantic and modernist artists aimed to speak in a more common language in order for their art to be more inclusively accessible.

Another overlap between the romantic period and the modernist period is desire to connect to a larger audience – the desire to connect to the “common” person.

“The principal object, then, which I proposed to myself in these poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible, in a selection of language really used by men; and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way…” (Wordsworth 135).

Relating to the common folk at the time was important for the Romantic poet. Romanticism is known for its transformative introspection on the seemingly mundane and succeeding to reveal that reflection to the reader in a simpler way compared to previous literary periods. When you look at modernist piece of artwork, you can see how it’s not exactly expressed in any one language in particular. That is one of the keys in unraveling how the age of romanticism anticipated the age of modernism. Romanticism made its art accessible and learned for the masses and modernist pieces of artwork are so abstract, that no one social class or member of society has a leg up over any other social class or societal member. Modernist artwork also applies with the masses. William Wordsworth describes the importance of expressing romantic poetry in the common language when he writes,

“For to treat the subject with the clearness and coherence of which I believe it susceptible, it would be necessary to give a full account of the present state of the public taste in this country, and to determine how far this taste is healthy or depraved; which, again, could not be determined, without pointing out, in what manner language and the human mind act and re-act on each other, and without retracing the revolutions…of society itself” (134).

In this quote from Wordsworth’s preface, he points out that in order to express a moment in time and the self-reflection that coexists with it to the fullest extent, then the writer must be self aware and also aware of the political atmosphere of the time, the people’s emotional intelligence, and the common bond between humans so that the message of the piece of artwork is delivered clearly and effectively.

​In Peter Haworth’s British Poetry in the Age of Modernism, he speaks to this same requisite of connecting with the all of his readers, especially his, so called by Wordsworth, “common” readers, when he writes, “Not only did modernism introduce new styles and languages for poetry, it also ensured that there could be no way to hear the old ones in the same way” (3). The quote from Haworth could go to reveal that modernism was the age that a completely new language was born for the art world. Everyone was introduced to this new language at the same time (i.e.; those exposed to popular culture) and no one person had a leg up in understanding or speaking this language over another person. This could go to show that romanticism was the period when individuals opened the door and recognized the need for a new language and modernism was the period when individuals chose to step inside the room and create an entirely new language. Romanticism was the starting period that thought to reject traditional values just because they were the status quo and modernism was the period that brought that rejection and confrontation to fruition by creating abstract and unconventional pieces of artwork.

​Wordsworth suggests this conscious effort to avoid complicated or hazy deliverance of messages in literature when he writes, “They who have been accustomed to the gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers, if they persist in reading this book…will look round for poetry, and will be induced to inquire by what species of courtesy these attempts can be permitted to assume that title” (134). In this excerpt from the preface, Wordsworth uses the words “gaudiness” and “inane” to describe how writers before him wrote poetry. These choice words could suggest that Wordsworth seemed to have believed that writers before him tried so hard to make their poems sound complicated and intelligent – so hard to sound intelligent that the poems bordered on sounding unintelligent – that the romantic poems may not even sound like poetry to those who are used to complicated and enigmatic stanzas and lines. Romantic poetry weighs simplicity and conveying beauty through easier-to-understand motifs and stanzas more heavily than the writers before the romantic period. Wordsworth mentions how people have grown so “accustomed” to accepting the complicated and hazy poetry those writers before have mastered, so much so that his romantic poetry will seem so abstract as to be in another language. Wordsworth didn’t know at the time, but this “other language” will have developed into a completely unique language in a category of its own come the modernist period.

​Art is always changing, but some crowds react to major changes with discontentment and sometimes it’s a really passionate dislike for a certain art that’s specific to the time. Since romantic art pieces and modernist art pieces were both rather revolutionary in their own rights, people either reacted to them with fervent pleasure or dissatisfaction. In his preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth writes,

“I had formed no very inaccurate estimate of the probable effect of those poems: I flattered myself that they who should be pleased with them would read them with more than common pleasure: and, on the other hand, I was well aware, that by those who should dislike them they would be read with more than common dislike” (133).

While it could be argued that modernist authors were not fond of romantic authors’ work, to say the least, the two literary periods have at least one thing in common: people had and have varying opinions of both – usually either hot or cold, good or bad.

​An important note to make about the similarities between the romantic period and the modernist period is gender roles shifting around and making more noise. While gender roles were still publicly and actively enforced in schools and other venues of influence, a new, groundbreaking idea was emerging. This new idea is highlighted in the introduction to The Romantic Period,

“The new idea that, as the historian Linda Colley has put it, a woman’s place was not simply in the home but also in the nation could justify or at least extenuate the affront to proper feminine modesty represented by publication—by a woman’s entry into the public sphere of authorship…This became, nonetheless, the first era in literary history in which women writers began to compete with men I their numbers, sales, and literary reputations” (Norton 9).

The romantic period made rightful space for more women authors and this streak was continued through the modern period. While social and political changes definitely influenced how women were seen by society – art imitates life, as the saying goes – art quickly followed suit. During the modern era, some women were granted the right to own property under their names, some women were admitted to universities, and some women were granted the right to vote. The fight for all women to have equal rights was quickly growing stronger. During this period, women were not so wholly abridged to the domesticity role society subjected them to and this is alluded to in the introduction to The Twentieth Century and After,

“The position of women, too, was rapidly changing during this period…These shifts in attitudes toward women, in the roles women played in national life, and in the relations between the sexes are reflected in a variety of ways in the literature of the period” (Norton 962).

When it comes to fighting for human rights, it takes time and effort on part from marginalized groups in previous years to break through social norms of the time. That goes to say that it took women deservedly pursuing writing during the romantic period for modern writers to follow suit. While advancing in women’s rights isn’t directly correlated to how the romantic period anticipated the modern period, when a more inclusive group of voices is heard in literature, it certainly makes a difference in how that literary period is perceived. I think there’s a lot to be thought on the fact that the romantic period valued the individual’s existence at the same time that women’s rights were slowly advancing. In relation, I think that the effect of a more confrontational and challenging work of art was in part due to the rapid advancement of women’s rights.

Regarding the notion that romantic writers and modernist writers wouldn’t exactly take a liking towards one another’s work, it is, nonetheless, important to note that both genres, both periods, shared the aspiration in changing in the mindsets of their audience members. Romantic writers focused on discussing the imagination and the power that comes with it, in a similar way, modernist artists left their work abstract and ambiguous, relying on the imagination of their audience to produce their own interpretation. This focus on letting the mind do what it does so well produced a collection of  “robust voices” that was made up of both audience members and artists. Since this collection of voices was so crucial for both romantic and modernist artists to have continued with the ultimate purpose they saw in creating art, it would be interesting to conclude that the conversations that surround the romantic period and the modern period are not two separate conversations. Instead, one ongoing conversation had taken place over a vast period of time, only to disguise itself in different shapes and different discourses.

Bialostosky, Don H., and Lawrence D. Needham. Rhetorical Traditions and British​Romantic Literature. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995. Print.

Fairchild, Hoxie Neale. The Romantic Quest. New York: Russell & Russell, 1965. Print.

Fowler, Alastair. A History of English Literature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1987. ​Print.

Greenblatt, Stephen, and M. H. Abrams. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. ​New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. Print.

Howarth, Peter. British Poetry in the Age of Modernism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, ​2005. Print.

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