Rousseau and Romanticism, Chapter II (Part 1)

I am happy to present the first post of Chapter II 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.



Romanticism, it has been remarked, is all that is not Voltaire. The clash between Rousseau and Voltaire is indeed not merely the clash between two men, it is the clash between two incompatible views of life. Voltaire is the end of the old world, as Goethe has put it, Rousseau the beginning of the new.

One is not to suppose, however, that Voltaire was a consistent champion of the past. He is indeed with all his superficial clearness one of the most incoherent of writers At the same time that he defended classical tradition he attacked Christian tradition, spreading abroad a spirit of mockery and irreverence that tended to make every traditional belief impossible. The “reason” to which he appeals has all the shallowness that I have noticed in the “reason” of the eighteenth century. Though he does not fall into the Cartesian excess of abstract reasoning, and though the good sense that he most often understands by reason is admirably shrewd within certain bounds, he nevertheless falls very far short of the standards of a true classicism. He delights in the philosophy of Locke and has little sense for Greek philosophy or for the higher aspects of Greek literature. He is quite lacking in the quality of imagination that is needful if one is to communicate with what is above the ordinary rational level. So far from being capable of high seriousness he is scarcely capable of ordinary seriousness. And so the nobility, elegance, imitation, and decorum that he is constantly preaching have about them a taint of formalism. Perhaps this taint appears most conspicuously in his conception of decorum. A man may be willing to impose restrictions on his ordinary self—and every type of decorum is restrictive—if he is asked to do so for some adequate end. The end of the decorum that an Aristotle, for example, would impose is that one may become more human and therefore, as he endeavors to show in a highly positive fashion, happier.* The only art and literature that will please a man who has thus become human through the observance of true decorum is an art and literature that are themselves human and decorous. Voltaire for his part wishes to subject art and literature to an elaborate set of restrictions in the name of decorum, but these restrictions are not joined to any adequate end. The only reward he holds out to those who observe all these restrictions is “The merit of difficulty overcome.” At bottom, like so many of the Jesuits from whom he received his education, he looks upon art as a game—a very ingenious and complicated game. The French muse he compares to a person executing a difficult clog dance on a tight rope, and he argues from this comparison, not that the French muse should assume a less constrained posture, but that she should on the contrary be exemplary to the nations. No wonder the romanticists and even Dr. Johnson demurred at Voltaire’s condemnation of Shakespeare in the name of this type of decorum.

Voltaire is therefore, in spite of all his dazzling gifts, one of the most compromising advocates of classicism. Pope also had eminent merits, but from the truly classical point of view he is about as inadequate as Voltaire ; and this is important to remember because English romanticism tends to be all that is not Pope. The English romanticists revolted especially from the poetic diction of which Pope was one of the chief sources, and poetic diction, with its failure to distinguish between nobility of language and the language of the nobility, is only an aspect of artificial decorum. However, the revolt from poetic diction and decorum in general is not the central aspect of the great movement that resulted in the eclipse of the wit and man of the world and in the emergence of the original genius. What the genius wanted was spontaneity, and spontaneity, as he understood it, involves a denial, not merely of decorum, but of something that, as I have said, goes deeper than decorum—namely the doctrine of imitation. According to Voltaire genius is only judicious imitation. According to Rousseau the prime mark of genius is refusal to imitate. The movement away from imitation, however, had already got well started before it thus came to a picturesque head in the clash between Rousseau and Voltaire, and if we wish to understand this movement we need to take a glance at its beginnings—especially in England.

There are reasons why this supposed opposition between imitation and genius should have been felt in England more keenly than elsewhere. The doctrine of imitation in its neo-classical form did not get established there until about the time of Dryden. In the meanwhile England had had a great creative literature in which the freedom and spontaneity of the imagination had not been cramped by a too strict imitation of models. Dryden himself, though he was doing more than any one else to promote the new correctness that was coming in from France, felt that this correctness was no equivalent for the Elizabethan inspiration. The structure that he and his contemporaries were erecting might be more regular, but lacked the boldness and originality of that reared by the “giant race before the flood”:

Our age was cultivated thus at length;
But what we gained in skill we lost in strength.
Our builders were with want of genius cursed;
The second temple was not like the first.     [From verses prefixed to Congreve’s Double Dealer.]

This contrast between the imitator and the inspired original was developed by Addison in a paper (“Spectator” 160) that was destined to be used against the very school to which he himself belonged. For Addison was in his general outlook a somewhat tame Augustan, nevertheless he exalts the “natural geniuses” who have something “nobly wild and extravagant” in them above the geniuses who have been “refined by conversation, reflection and the reading of the most polite authors”; who have “formed themselves by rules and submitted the greatness of their natural talents to the corrections and restraints of art.” “The great danger in these latter kind of geniuses is lest they cramp their own abilities too much by imitation, and form themselves altogether upon models, without giving full play to their own natural parts. An imitation of the best authors is not to compare with a good original; and I believe we may observe that very few writers make an extraordinary figure in the world, who have not something in their way of thinking or expressing themselves that is peculiar to them, and entirely their own.”

Another main influence that was making against the doctrine of imitation was also largely of English origin. This was the idea of progress though scientific observation and experiment. As a result of this type of positivism, discovery was being added to discovery. Science was kindling man’s imagination and opening up before him what he really craves, the vista of an endless advance. Why should not literature likewise do something new and original instead of sticking forever in the same rut of imitation? In its Greek form the doctrine of imitation was, as I have tried to show, not only flexible and progressive, but in its own way, positive and experimental. But in modern times the two main forms of imitation, the classical and the Christian, have worked within the limits imposed by tradition and traditional models. The imitation of models, the Christian imitation of Christ, let us say, or the classical imitation of Horace, may indeed be a very vital thing, the imitation of one soul by another soul; but when carried out in this vital way, the two main forms of imitation tend to clash, and the compromise between them, as I have already said, resulted in a good deal of formalism. By its positive and critical method science was undermining every traditional belief. Both the Christian and the classical formalists would have been the first to deny that the truths of imitation for which they stood could be divorced from tradition and likewise put on a positive and critical basis. The fact is indubitable in any case that the discrediting of tradition has resulted in a progressive lapse from the religious and the humanistic to the naturalistic level. An equally indubitable fact is that scientific or rationalistic naturalism tended from the early eighteenth century to produce emotional naturalism, and that both forms of naturalism were hostile to the doctrine of imitation.

The trend away from the doctrine of imitation towards emotional naturalism finds revolutionary expression in the literary field in such a work as Young’s “Conjectures on Original Composition” (1759). Addison had asserted as we have seen, the superiority of what is original in a man, of what comes to him spontaneously, over what he acquires by conscious effort and culture. Young, a personal friend of Addison’s, develops this contrast between the “natural” and the “artificial” to its extreme consequences. “Modern writers,” he says, “have a choice to make. . . . They may soar in the regions of liberty, or move in the soft fetters of easy imitation.” “An original may be said to be of a vegetable nature; it rises spontaneously from the vital root of genius; it grows, it is not made; imitations are often a sort of manufacture, wrought up by those mechanics, art and labor, out of preëxistent materials not their own.” “We may as well grow good by another’s virtue, or fat by another’s food, as famous by another’s thought.” One evidence that we are still living in the movement of which Young is one of the initiators is that his treatise will not only seem to most of us a very spirited piece of writing—that it certainly is—but doctrinally sound. And yet it is only one of those documents very frequent in literary history which lack intrinsic soundness, but which can be explained if not justified as a recoil from an opposite extreme. The unsoundness of Young’s work comes out clearly if one compares it with the treatise on the “Sublime” attributed to Longinus which is not a mere protest against a previous excess, but a permanently acceptable treatment of the same problem of genius and inspiration. Longinus exalts genius, but is at the same time regardful of culture and tradition, and even emphasizes the relation between inspiration and the imitation of models. Young insinuates, on the contrary, that one is aided in becoming a genius by being brainless and ignorant. “Some are pupils of nature only, nor go further to school.” “Many a genius probably there has been which could neither write nor read” It follows almost inevitably from these premises that genius flourishes most in the primitive ages of society before originality has been crushed beneath the superincumbent weight of culture and critics have begun their pernicious activities. Young did not take this step himself, but it was promptly taken by others on the publication of the Ossianic poems (1762). Ossian is at once added to the list of great originals already enumerated by Addison—Homer, Pindar, the patriarchs of the Old Testament and Shakespeare (whom Young like the later romanticists opposes to Pope). “Poetry,” says Diderot, summing up a whole movement, “calls for something enormous, barbaric and savage.”

This exaltation of the virtues of the primitive ages is simply the projection into a mythical past of a need that the man of the eighteenth century feels in the present—the need to let himself go. This is what he understands by his “return to nature.” A whole revolution is implied in this reinterpretation of the word nature. To follow nature in the classical sense is to imitate what is normal and representative in man and so to become decorous. To be natural in the new sense one must begin by getting rid of imitation and decorum. Moreover, for the classicist, nature and reason are synonymous. The primitivist, on the other hand, means by nature the spontaneous play of impulse and temperament, and inasmuch as this liberty is hindered rather than helped by reason, he inclines to look on reason, not as the equivalent but as the opposite of nature.

If one is to understand this development, one should note carefully how certain uses of the word reason, not merely by the neo-classicists but by the anti-traditionalists, especially in religion, tended to produce this denial of reason. It is a curious fact that some of those who were attacking the Christian religion in the name of reason, were themselves aware that mere reason, whether one understood by the word abstract reasoning or uninspired good sense, does not satisfy, that in the long run man is driven either to rise higher or to sink lower than reason. St. Evremond, for example, prays nature to deliver man from the doubtful middle state in which she has placed him—either to “lift him up to angelic radiance,” or else to “sink him to the instinct of simple animals.” (1) Since the ascending path, the path that led to angelic radiance, seemed to involve the acceptance of a mass of obsolete dogma, man gradually inclined to sink below the rational level and to seek to recover the “instinct of simple animals.” Another and still more fundamental fact that some of the rationalists perceived and that militated against their own position, is that the dominant element in man is not reason, but imagination, or if one prefers, the element of illusion. “Illusion,” said Voltaire himself, “is the queen of the human heart.” The great achievement of tradition at its best was to be at once a limit and a support to both reason and imagination and so to unite them in a common allegiance. In the new movement, at the same time that reason was being encouraged by scientific method to rise up in revolt against tradition, imagination was being fascinated and drawn to the naturalistic level by scientific discovery and the vista of an endless advance that it opened up. A main problem, therefore, for the student of this movement is to determine what forms of imaginative activity are possible on the naturalistic level. A sort of understanding was reached on this point by different types of naturalists in the course of the eighteenth century. One form of imagination, it was agreed, should be displayed in science, another form in art and literature. The scientific imagination should be controlled by judgment and work in strict subordination to the facts. In art and literature, on the other hand, the imagination should be free. Genius and originality are indeed in strict ratio to this freedom. “In the fairy land of fancy,” says Young, “genius may wander wild; there it has a creative power, and may reign arbitrarily over its own empire of chimeras.” (The empire of chimeras was later to become the tower of ivory.) This sheer indiscipline of the literary imagination might seem in contrast with the discipline of the scientific imagination an inferiority; but such was not the view of the partisans of original genius. Kant, indeed, who was strongly influenced in his “Critique of Aesthetic Judgment” by these English theorists, inclined to deny genius to the man of science for the very reason that his imagination is so strictly controlled. The fact would seem to be that a great scientist, a Newton let us say, has as much right to be accounted a genius as Shakespeare. The inferiority of the genius of a Newton compared with that of a Shakespeare lies in a certain coldness. Scientific genius is thus cold because it operates in a region less relevant to man than poetic genius; it is, in Bagehot’s phrase, more remote from the “hearth of the soul.” [To be continued.]

(1) Change l’état douteux dans lequel tu nous ranges.
Nature! élève-nous à la clarté des anges,
Ou nous abaisse au sens des simples animaux.   Sonnet (1657?)

* In regard to Babbitt’s idea of the “critical spirit,” the following may be taken as a caveat: “Theoretically speaking, man is capable of acquiring a full knowledge of the moral law, which is, as we have seen, nothing but the dictates of reason properly exercised. Actually, taking into consideration the power of passion, prejudice, and other influences which cloud the understanding or pervert the will, one can safely say that man, unaided by supernatural revelation, would not acquire a full and correct knowledge of the contents of the natural law (cf. Vatican Council [First], Sess. III, cap. ii). In proof we need but recall that the noblest ethical teaching of pagans, such as the systems of Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, was disfigured by its approbation of shockingly immoral actions and practices.”
—From “Natural Law” in the Catholic Encyclopedia (1913).

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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