Rousseau and Romanticism, Chapter I (Part 2)

I am happy to present the second post of Chapter I of Irving Babbitt’s great work Rousseau and Romanticism (first published in 1919), in which the reader is 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 conservative 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. I beg to call my readers’ attention to my two published plays, The Tragedy of King Lewis the Sixteenth and Dido: The Tragedy of a Woman (both available on, as present-day works that adhere to the Classical Tradition in poetic drama. Tomorrow, Wednesday, August 23, 2017, the Kindle version of Dido will a “Book of the Day” giveaway.



When Foster [John Foster on the “Application of the Epithet Romantic” (1806). See previous post.] wrote his essay there was no question as yet in England of a romantic school. Before considering how the word came to be applied to a particular movement we need first to bring out more fully certain broad conflicts of tendency during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, conflicts that are not sufficiently revealed by the occasional uses during this period of the word romantic. In the contrast Foster established between judgment and imagination he is merely following a long series of neo-classical critics and this contrast not only seemed to him and these critics, but still seems to many, the essential contrast between classicism and romanticism. We shall be helped in understanding how judgment (or reason) and imagination came thus to be sharply contrasted if we consider briefly the changes in the meaning of the word wit during the neo-classical period, and also if we recollect that the contrast between judgment and imagination is closely related to the contrast the French are so fond of establishing between the general sense (le sens commun) and the private sense or sense of the individual (le sens propre).

In the sixteenth century prime emphasis was put not upon common sense, but upon wit or conceit or ingenuity (in the sense of quickness of imagination). The typical Elizabethan strove to excel less by judgment than by invention, by “high-flying liberty of conceit”; like Falstaff he would have a brain “apprehensive, quick, forgetive, full of nimble, fiery, and delectable shapes.” Wit at this time, it should be remembered, was synonymous not only with imagination but with intellect (in opposition to will). The result of the worship of wit in this twofold sense was a sort of intellectual romanticism. Though its origins are no doubt mediaeval, it differs from the ordinary romanticism of the Middle Ages to which I have already referred in being thus concerned with thought rather than with action. Towards the end of the Renaissance and in the early seventeenth century especially, people were ready to pursue the strange and surprising thought even at the risk of getting too far away from the workings of the normal mind. Hence the “points” and “conceits” that spread, as Lowell put it, like a “cutaneous eruption” over the face of Europe; hence the Gongorists, and Cultists, the Marinists and Euphuists, the précieux and the “metaphysical” poets. And then came the inevitable swing away from all this fantasticality towards common sense. A demand arose for something that was less rare and “precious” and more representative.

This struggle between the general sense and the sense of the individual stands out with special clearness in France. A model was gradually worked out by aid of the classics, especially the Latin classics, as to what man should be. Those who were in the main movement of the time elaborated a great convention, that is they came together about certain things. They condemned in the name of their convention those who were too indulgent of their private sense, in other words, too eccentric in their imaginings. A Théophile, for example, fell into disesteem for refusing to restrain his imagination, for asserting the type of “spontaneity” that would have won him favor in any romantic period. [1]

The swing away from intellectual romanticism can also be traced in the changes that took place in the meaning of the word wit in both France and England. One of the main tasks of the French critics of the seventeenth century and of English critics, largely under the lead of the French, was to distinguish between true and false wit. The work that would have been complimented a little earlier as “witty” and “conceited” is now censured as fantastic and far-fetched, as lacking in judicial control over the imagination, and therefore in general appeal. The movement away from the sense of the individual towards common sense goes on steadily from the time of Malherbe to that of Boileau. Balzac attacks Ronsard for his individualistic excess, especially for his audacity in inventing words without reference to usage. Balzac himself is attacked by Boileau for his affectation, for his straining to say things differently from other people. In so far his wit was not true but false. La Bruyère, in substantial accord with Boileau, defines false wit as wit which is lacking in good sense and judgment and “in which the imagination has too large a share.” [Caractères ch. v.]

What the metaphysical poets in England understood by wit, according to Dr. Johnson, was the pursuit of their thoughts to their last ramifications, and in this pursuit of the singular and the novel they lost the “grandeur of generality.” This imaginative quest of rarity led to the same recoil as in France, to a demand for common sense and judgment. The opposite extreme from the metaphysical excess is reached when the element of invention is eliminated entirely from wit and it is reduced, as it is by Pope, to rendering happily the general sense—

What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.

Dr. Johnson says that the decisive change in the meaning of the word wit took place about the time of Cowley [Abraham Cowley 1618-1667]. Important evidences of this change and also of the new tendency to depreciate the imagination is also found in certain passages of Hobbes. Hobbes identifies the imagination with the memory of outer images and so looks on it as “decaying sense.” [2] “They who observe similitudes,” he remarks elsewhere, making a distinction that was to be developed by Locke and accepted by Addison, “in case they be such as are but rarely observed by others are said to have a good wit; by which, in this occasion, is meant a good fancy” (wit has here the older meaning). “But they who distinguish and observe differences,” he continues, “are said to have a good judgment. Fancy without the help of judgment is not worthy of commendation, whereas judgment is commended for itself without the help of fancy. Indeed without steadiness and direction to some end, a great fancy is one kind of madness.” “ Judgment without fancy,” he concludes, “is wit” (this anticipates the extreme neo-classical use of the word wit), “but fancy without judgment, not.”

Dryden betrays the influence of Hobbes when he says of the period of incubation of his “Rival Ladies”: “Fancy was yet in its first work, moving the sleeping images of things towards the light, there to be distinguished and either chosen or rejected by judgment.” Fancy or imagination (the words were still synonymous), as conceived by the English neo-classicists, often shows a strange vivacity for a faculty that is after all only “decaying sense.” “Fancy without judgment,” says Dryden, “is a hot-mouthed jade without a curb.” “Fancy, writes Rymer in a similar vein, “leaps and frisks, and away she’s gone; whilst reason rattles the chain and follows after.” The following lines of Mulgrave are typical of the neo-classical notion of the relation between fancy and judgment:

As all is dullness when the Fancy’s bad,
So without Judgment, Fancy is but mad.
Reason is that substantial, useful part
Which gains the Head, while t’ other wins the Heart. [An Essay upon Poetry (1682).]

The opposition established by the neo-classicist in passages of this kind is too mechanical. Fancy and judgment do not seem to cooperate but to war with one another. In case of doubt the neo-classicist is always, ready to sacrifice fancy to the “substantial, useful part,” and so he seems too negative and cool and prosaic in his reason, and this is because his reason is so largely a protest against a previous romantic excess. What had been considered genius in the time of the “metaphysicals” had too often turned out to be only oddity. With this warning before them men kept their eyes fixed very closely on the model of normal human nature that had been set up, and imitated it very literally and timorously. A man was haunted by the fear that he might be “monstrous,” and so, as Rymer put it, “satisfy nobody’s maggot but his own.” Correctness thus became a sort of tyranny. We suffer to the present day from this neo-classical failure to work out a sound conception of the imagination in its relation to good sense. Because the neo-classicist held the imagination lightly as compared with good sense the romantic rebels were led to hold good sense lightly as compared with imagination. The romantic view in short is too much the neo-classical view turned upside down; and, as Sainte-Beuve says, nothing resembles a hollow so much as a swelling.

[1] Cf. his Elégie d’ une dame.
Mon âme, imaginant, n’a point la patience
De bien polir les vers et ranger la science.
La règle me déplait, j’écris confusément:
Jamais un bon esprit ne fait rien qu’aisément.

.            .              .              .              .              .              .

Je  veux faire des vers qui ne soient pas contraints

Chercher des lieux secrets où rien ne me déplaise,
Méditer à loisir, rêver tout à mon aise,
Employer toute une heure à me mirer dans l’eau,
Ouïr, comme en songeant, la course d’un ruisseau,
Ecrire dans un bois, m’interrompre, me taire,
Composer un quatrain sans songer à le faire.

[2] His psychology of the memory and imagination is still Aristotelian.

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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