Rousseau and Romanticism, Chapter I, Section I

Having presented large tracts of Gilbert Murray’s Classical Tradition in Poetry, I believe the time is right to present selections from Irving Babbitt’s acclaimed work, Rousseau and Romanticism (first published in 1919), in which the reader will be introduced to perhaps the most thoroughgoing critique of romanticism as a literary school ever penned. Babbitt (1865-1933) was a cultural and literary critic, serving as Professor of French Literature at Harvard. He and his friend Paul Elmer More (of Princeton) became the founders of the convervative literary movement known as the New Humanism. Babbitt was a pioneer in the study of comparative literature. His writing, as you will see, is notable for its clarity and perspicacity.



The words classic and romantic, we are often told, cannot be defined at all, and even if they could be defined, some would add, we should not be much profited. But this inability or unwillingness to define may itself turn out to be only one aspect of a movement that from Rousseau to Bergson has sought to discredit the analytical intellect — what Wordsworth calls “the false secondary power by which we multiply distinctions.” However, those who are with Socrates rather than with Rousseau or Wordsworth in this matter, will insist on the importance of definition, especially in a chaotic era like the present; for nothing is more characteristic of such an era than its irresponsible use of general terms. Now to measure up to the Socratic standard, a definition must not be abstract and metaphysical but experimental; it must not, that is, reflect our opinion of what a word should mean, but what it actually has meant. Mathematicians may be free at times to frame their own definitions, but in the case of words like classic and romantic, that have been used innumerable times, and used not in one but in many countries, such a method is inadmissible. One must keep one’s eye on actual usage. One should indeed allow for a certain amount of freakishness in this usage. Beaumarchais, for example, makes classic synonymous with barbaric. One may disregard an occasional aberration of this kind, but if one can find only confusion and inconsistency in all the main uses of words like classic and romantic, the only procedure for those who speak or write in order to be understood is to banish the words from their vocabulary.

Now to define in a Socratic way two things are necessary: one must learn to see a common element in things that are apparently different and also to discriminate between things that are apparently similar. A Newton, to take the familiar instance of the former process, saw a common element in the fall of an apple and the motion of a planet; and one may perhaps without being a literary Newton discover a common element in all the main uses of the word romantic as well as in all the main uses of the word classic; though some of the things to which the word romantic in particular has been applied seem, it must be admitted, at least as far apart as the fall of an apple and the motion of a planet. The first step is to perceive the something that connects two or more of these things apparently so diverse, and then it may be found necessary to refer this unifying trait itself back to something still more general, and so on until we arrive, not indeed at anything absolute — the absolute will always elude us — but at what Goethe calls the original or underlying phenomenon (Urphänomen). A fruitful source of false definition is to take as primary in a more or less closely allied group of facts what is actually secondary — for example, to fix upon the return to the Middle Ages as the central fact in romanticism, whereas this return is only symptomatic; it is very far from being the original phenomenon. Confused and incomplete definitions of romanticism have indeed just that origin — they seek to put at the centre something that though romantic is not central but peripheral, and so the whole subject is thrown out of perspective.

My plan then is to determine to the best of my ability, in connection with a brief historical survey, the common element in the various uses of the words classic and romantic; and then, having thus disposed of the similarities, to turn to the second part of the art of defining and deal, also historically, the the differences. For my subject is not romanticism in general, but only a particular type of romanticism, and this type of romanticism needs to be seen as a recoil, not from classicism in general, but from a particular type of classicism.


The word romantic when traced historically is found to go back to the old French roman of which still older forms are romans and romant. These and similar formations derive ultimately from the mediaeval Latin adverb romanice. Roman and like words meant originally the various vernaculars derived from Latin, just as the French still speak of these vernaculars as les langues romanes; and then the word roman came to be applied to tales written in the various vernaculars, especially in old French. Now with what features of these tales were people most struck? The reply to this question is found in a passage of a fifteenth-century Latin manuscript: “From the reading of certain romantics, that is, books of poetry composed in French on military deeds which are for the most part fictitious.” Here the term romantic is applied to books that we should still call romantic and for the very same reason, namely, because of the predominance in these books of the element of fiction over reality.

In general a thing is romantic when, as Aristotle would say, it is wonderful rather than probable; in other words, when it violates the normal sequence of cause and effect in favor of adventure. Here is the fundamental contrast between the words classic and romantic which meets us at the outset and in some form or other persists in all the uses of the word down to the present day. A thing is romantic when it is strange, unexpected, intense, superlative, extreme, unique,* etc. A thing is classical, on the other hand, when it is not unique, but representative of a class. In this sense medical men may speak correctly of a classic case of typhoid fever, or a classic case of hysteria. One is even justified in speaking of a classic example of romanticism. By an easy extension of meaning a thing is classical when it belongs to a high class or to the best class.

The type of romanticism referred to in the fifteenth-century manuscript was, it will be observed, the spontaneous product of the popular imagination of the Middle Ages. We may go further and say that the uncultivated human imagination in all times and places is romantic in the same way. It hungers for the thrilling and the marvellous and is, in short, incurably melodramatic. All students of the past know how, when the popular imagination is left free to work on actual historical characters and events, it quickly introduces into these characters and events the themes of universal folk-lore, and makes a ruthless sacrifice of reality to the love of melodramatic surprise. For example, the original nucleus of historical fact has almost disappeared in the lurid melodramatic tale “Les quatre fils Aymon,” which has continued, as presented in the “Bibliothèque Bleue,” to appeal to the French peasant down to our own times. Those who look with alarm on recent attacks upon romanticism should therefore be comforted. All children, nearly all women and the vast majority of men always have been, are and probably will be romantic. This is true even of a classical period like the second half of the seventeenth century in France. Boileau is supposed to have killed the vogue of the interminable romances of the early seventeenth century which themselves continue the spirit of the mediaeval romances. But recent investigations have shown that the vogue of these romances continued until well on into the eighteenth century. They influenced the imagination of Rousseau, the great modern romancer.

But to return to the history of the word romantic. The first printed examples of the word in any modern tongue are, it would seem, to be found in English. The Oxford Dictionary cites the following from F. Greville’s “life of Sidney” (written before 1628, published in 1652):”Doe not his Arcadian romantics live after him?” — meaning apparently ideas or features suggestive of romance. Of extreme interest is the use of the word in Evelyn’s “Diary” (3 August, 1664): “Were Sir Guy’s grot improved as it might be, it were capable of being made a most romantic and pleasant place.” The word is not only used in a favorable sense, but it is applied to nature; and it is this use of the word in connection with outer nature that French and German literature are going to derive later from England. Among the early English uses of the word romantic may be noted: “There happened this extraordinary case — one of the most romantique that ever I heard in my life and could not have believed [Pepys Diary, 13 June, 1666],” etc. “Most other authors that I ever read either have wild romantic tales wherein they strain Love and Honor to that ridiculous height that it becomes burlesque [Thomas Shadwell, Preface to the Sullen Lovers, 1668],”etc. The word becomes fairly common by the year 1700 and thousands of examples could be collected from English writers in the eighteenth century. Here are two early eighteenth-century instances:

“The gentleman I am married to made love to me in rapture but it was the rapture of a Christian and a man of Honor, not a romantic hero or a whining coxcomb.” [Spectator, 142, by Steele]

Whether the charmer sinner it or saint it
If folly grow romantick I must paint it. [Pope, 2d Epistle, Of the Character of Women]

The early French and German uses of the word romantic seem to derive from England. One important point is to be noted as to France. Before using the word romantique the French used the word romanesque in the sense of wild, unusual, adventurous — especially in matters of sentiment, and they have continued to employ romanesque alongside romantique, which is now practically used only of the romantic school. A great deal of confusion is thus avoided into which we fall in English from having only the one word romantic, which must do duty for both romantique and romanesque. An example of romantique is found in French as early as 1675; but the word owed its vogue practically to the anglomania that set in about the middle of the eighteenth century. The first very influential French example of the word is appropriately found in Rousseau in the Fifth Promenade (1777): “The shores of the Lake of Bienne are more wild and romantic than those of the Lake of Geneva.” The word romantique was fashionable in France especially as applied to scenery from about the year 1785, but without any thought as yet of applying it to a literary school.

In Germany the word romantisch as an equivalent of the French romantique and modern German romanhaft, appears at the end of the seventeenth century and plainly as a borrowing from the French. Heidigger, a Swiss, used it several times in his “Mythoscopia romantica” [first edition, 1608; second edition, 1732], an attack on romances and the wild and vain imaginings they engender. According to Heidigger the only resource against romanticism in this sense is religion. In Germany as in France the association of romantic with natural scenery comes from England, especially from the imitations and translations of Thomson’s “Seasons.”

In the second half of the eighteenth century the increasingly favorable use of words like Gothic and enthusiastic as well as the emergence of words like sentimental and picturesque are among the symptoms of a new movement, and the fortunes of the word romantic were more or less bound up with this movement. Still, apart from its application to natural scenery, the word is as yet far from having acquired a favorable connotation if we are to believe an essay by John Foster on the “Application of the Epithet Romantic” (1806). Foster’s point of view is not unlike that of Heidigger. Romantic, he says, had come to be used as a term of vague abuse, whereas it can be used rightly only of the ascendency of imagination over judgment, and is therefore synonymous with such words as wild, visionary, extravagant. “A man possessing so strong a judgment and so subordinate a fancy as Dean Swift would hardly have been made romantic . . . if he had studied all the books in Don Quixote’s library.” It is not, Foster admits, a sign of high endowment for a youth to be too coldly judicial, too deaf to the blandishments of imaginative illusion. Yet in general a man should strive to bring his imagination under the control of sound reason. But how is it possible thus to prevail against the deceits of fancy? Right knowing, he asserts very un-Socratically, is not enough to ensure right doing. At this point Foster changes from the tone of a literary essay to that of a sermon, and, maintaining a thesis somewhat similar to that of Pascal in the seventeenth century and Heidigger in the eighteenth, he concludes that a man’s imagination will run away with his judgment or reason unless he have the aid of divine grace.

*Perhaps the most romantic lines in English are found in one of Camillo’s speeches in The Winter’s Tale (iv, 4):

a wild dedication of yourselves
To unpath’d waters, undream’d shores.

This “wild dedication” is, it should be noted, looked upon by Camillo with disfavor.

David Lane

I am the author of two published plays, The Tragedy of King Lewis the Sixteenth and Dido: The Tragedy of a Woman, in both of which I used regular traditional metrics (blank verse) and the traditional language of poetry, all but universal from the Trojan War to the First World War. I am a retired editor and a veteran of the Vietnam War. For nearly twenty years, I have served as Chairman of Una Voce New York, an organization dedicated to restoring traditional Roman Catholicism, especially the ancient Latin Rite superseded by the heavily revised vernacular liturgy born of the Second Vatican Council, an event that introduced sweeping changes into the Catholic Church and ignited fierce controversy that rages to this day.

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2 Responses

  1. Christopher J Lane says:

    An excellent essay. I do like the poetry of Keats, Coleridge, Keats & Shelly.

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