Rousseau and Romanticism, Chapter II (Part 4)

I am happy to present the fourth 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.



The cult of the picturesque is closely associated with the cult of local color. Here as elsewhere romantic genius is, in contradistinction to classical genius which aims at the “grandeur of generality,” the genius of wonder and surprise. According to Buffon, who offers the rare spectacle of a man of science who is at the same time a theorist of the grand manner, genius is shown in the architectonic gift—in the power so to unify a subject as to keep its every detail in proper subordination to the whole. Any mere wantoning of the imagination in the pursuit of either the precious or the picturesque is to be severely repressed if one is to attain to the grandeur of generality. Buffon is truly classic in relating genius to design. Unfortunately he verges towards the pseudo-classic in his distrust of color, of the precise word and the vivid descriptive epithet. The growing verbal squeamishness that so strikes one towards the end of the neo-classic period is one outcome of artificial decorum, of confusing nobility of language with the language of the nobility. There was an increasing fear of the trivial word that might destroy the illusion of the grand manner, and also of the technical term that should be too suggestive of specialization. All terms were to be avoided that were not readily intelligible to a lady or gentleman in the drawing-room. And so it came to pass that by the end of the eighteenth century the grand manner, or elevated style, had come to be largely an art of ingenious circumlocution, and Buffon gives some countenance to this conception of classic dignity and representativeness when he declares that one should describe objects “only by the most general terms.” At all events the reply of the romantic genius to this doctrine is the demand for local color, for the concrete and picturesque phrase. The general truth at which the classicist aims the Rousseauist dismisses as identical with the gray and the academic, and bends all his efforts to the rendering of the vivid and unique detail. Of the readiness of the romantic genius to show (or one is tempted to say) to advertise his originality by trampling verbal decorum under foot along with every other kind of decorum, I shall have more to say later. He is ready to employ not only the homely and familiar word that the pseudo-classicist had eschewed as “low,” but words so local and technical as to be unintelligible to ordinary readers. Chateaubriand deals so specifically with the North American Indian and his environment that the result, according to Sainte-Beuve, is a sort of “tattooing” of his style. Hugo bestows a whole dictionary of architectural terms upon the reader in his “Notre Dame,” and of nautical terms in his “Toilers of the Sea.” In order to follow some of the passages in Balzac’s “César Birotteau,” one needs to be a lawyer or a professional accountant, and it has been said that in order to do justice to a certain description in Zola one would need to be a pork-butcher. In this movement towards a highly specialized vocabulary one should note a co-operation, as so often elsewhere, between the two wings of the naturalistic movement—the scientific and the emotional. The Rousseauist is, like the scientist, a specialist—he specializes in his own sensations. He goes in quest of emotional thrills for their own sake, just as Napoleon’s generals, according to Sainte-Beuve, waged war without any ulterior aim but for the sheer lust of conquest. The vivid images and picturesque details are therefore not sufficiently structural; each one tends to thrust itself forward without reference to the whole and to demand attention for its own sake.

The pursuit of the unrelated thrill without reference to its motivation or probability leads in the romantic movement to a sort of descent—often, it is true, a rapturous and lyrical descent—from the dramatic to the melodramatic. It is possible to trace this one-sided emphasis on wonder not merely in vocabulary but in the increasing resort to the principle of contrast. One suspects, for example, that Rousseau exaggerates the grotesqueness of his youthful failure as a musical composer at Lausanne in order that his success in the same rôle before the king and all the ladies of the court at Versailles may “stick more fiery off.” The contrast that Chateaubriand establishes between the two banks of the Mississippi at the beginning of his “Atala” is so complete as to put some strain on verisimilitude. One may note in this same description, as a somewhat different way of sacrificing the probable to the picturesque, the bears drunk on wild grapes and reeling on the branches of the elms. To prove that it was possible on some particular occasion to look down the vista of a forest glade on the lower Mississippi and see it closed by a drunken bear does not meet the difficulty at all. For art has to do, as was remarked long ago, not with the possible but the probable; and a bear in this posture is a possible but scarcely a probable bear.

To return to the principle of contrast: Hugo dilates upon his puniness as an infant (”abandoned by everybody, even by his mother”) in order to make his later achievement seem still more stupendous. (1) The use of the antithesis as the auxiliary of surprise, the abrupt and thrilling passage from light to shade or the contrary, finds perhaps its culminating expression in Hugo. A study of this one figure as it appears in his words and ideas, in his characters and situations and subjects, would show that he is the most melodramatic genius for whom high rank has ever been claimed in literature. The suddenness of Jean Valjean’s transformation from a convict into a saint may serve as a single instance of Hugo’s readiness to sacrifice verisimilitude to surprise in his treatment of character.

Closely allied to the desire to break up the monotonous surface of “good form” by the pointed and picturesque style in writing is the rise of the pointed and picturesque style in dress. A man may advertise his genius and originality (in the romantic sense of these terms) by departing from the accepted modes of costume as well as from the accepted modes of speech. Gautier’s scarlet waistcoat at the first performance of “Hernani” is of the same order as his flamboyant epithets, his riot of local color, and was at least as effective in achieving the main end of his life—to be, in his own phrase, the “terror of the sleek, baldheaded bourgeois.” In assuming the Armenian garb to the astonishment of the rustics of Motiers-Travers, Rousseau anticipates not merely Gautier but innumerable other violators of conventional correctness: here as elsewhere he deserves to rank as the classic instance, one is tempted to say, of romantic eccentricity. La Bruyère, an exponent of the traditional good-breeding against which Rousseauism is a protest, says that the gentleman allows himself to be dressed by his tailor. He wishes to be neither ahead of the mode nor behind it, being reluctant as he is in all things to oppose his private sense to the general sense. His point of view in the matter of dress is not so very remote from that of a genuine classicism, whereas the enthusiast who recently went about the streets of New York (until taken in by the police) garbed as a contemporary of Pericles is no less plainly a product of Rousseauistic revolt.

Chateaubriand’s relation to Rousseauism in this matter calls for special comment. He encouraged, and to some extent held, the belief that to show genius and originality one must be irregular and tempestuous in all things, even in the arrangement of one’s hair. At the same time he preached reason. His heart, in short, was romantic, his head classical. Both as a classicist and a romanticist he was ready to repudiate on the one hand his master Rousseau, and on the other his own disciples. As a romantic genius he wished to regard himself as unique and so unrelated to Rousseau. At the same time he also looked upon it as a sort of insolence for any of his own followers to aspire to such a lonely preeminence in grief as René. As a classicist he saw that great art aims at the normal and the representative, and that it is therefore absurd for people to pattern themselves on such morbid and exceptional characters as René and Childe Harold. Most of the romanticists indeed showed themselves very imitative even in their attempts at uniqueness, and the result was a second or third hand, or as one is tempted to say, a stale eccentricity. In their mere following of the mode many of the French romanticists of 1830 were ready to impose a painful discipline upon themselves (2) in order to appear abnormal, in order, for instance, to acquire a livid Byronic complexion. Some of those who wished to seem elegiac like Lamartine rather than to emulate the violent and histrionic revolt of the Conrads and Laras actually succeeded, we are told, in giving themselves consumption (hence the epithet école poitrinaire).

In outer and visible freakishness the French romanticists of 1830 probably bore away the palm, though in inner and spiritual remoteness from normal human experience they can scarcely vie with the early German romanticists. And this is doubtless due to the fact that in France there was a more definite outer standard from which to advertise their departure, and also to the fact that the revolt against this standard was so largely participated in by the painters and by writers like Gautier who were also interested in painting. Chateaubriand writes of the romantic painters (and the passage will also serve to illustrate his attitude towards his own disciples): “[These artists] rig themselves up as comic sketches, as grotesques, as caricatures. Some of them wear frightful mustaches, one would suppose that they are going forth to conquer the world—their brushes are halberds, their paint-scratchers sabres; others have enormous beards and hair that puffs out or hangs down their shoulders; they smoke a cigar volcanically. These cousins of the rainbow, to use a phrase of our old Régnier, have their heads filled with deluges, seas, rivers, forests, cataracts, tempests, or it may be with slaughters, tortures and scaffolds. One finds among them human skulls, foils, mandolins, helmets and dolmans. . . . They aim to form a separate species between the ape and the satyr; they give you to understand that the secrecy of the studio has its dangers and that there is no safety for the models.”

These purely personal eccentricities that so marked the early stages in the warfare between the Bohemian and the philistine have as a matter of fact diminished in our own time. Nowadays a man of the distinction of Disraeli or even of Bulwer-Lytton (3) would scarcely affect, as they did, the flamboyant style in dress. But the underlying failure to discriminate between the odd and the original has persisted and has worked out into even extremer consequences. One may note, as I have said, even in the early figures in the movement a tendency to play to the gallery, a something that suggests the approach of the era of the lime-light and the big headline. Rousseau himself has been called the father of yellow journalists.

(1) See poem, Ce siècle avait deux ans in the Feuilles d’Automne.

(2) For amusing details, see L. Maigron, Le Romamtisme et la mode (1911), ch v.

(3) For Disraeli see Wilfrid Ward, Men and Matters, 54 ff. Of Bulwer-Lytton at Nice about 1860 Princess von Racowitza writes as follows in her Autobiography (p. 46): “His fame was at its zenith. He seemed to me antediluvian, with his long dyed curls and his old-fashioned dress . . . with long coats reaching to the ankles, knee-breeches, and long colored waistcoats. Also, he appeared always with a young lady who adored him, and who was followed by a man servant carrying a harp. She sat at his feet and appeared as he did in the costume of 1830, with long flowing curls called Anglaises. . . . In society, however, people ran after him tremendously, and spoilt him in every possible way. He read aloud from his own works, and, in especially poetic passages, his ‘Alice’ accompanied him with arpeggios on the harp.”

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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