D. S. Mirsky 1937
Author: D. S. Mirsky;
First published: 1937 in Literary Encyclopedia, Vol. 10, pp. 17-36;
Translated: by Anton P.
The word Romanticism, being the designation of a very complex synthesis of literary and general cultural movements that developed from the end of the 18th to the middle of the 19th centuries, is associated with one or the other side of these movements and extends to very diverse phenomena. In the most limited and concrete sense, Romanticism denotes an ideological movement that arose after a turning point in the development of the French Revolution (from the Terror to Thermidor) as a result of dissatisfaction with its course of certain sections of the bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie. But the word that began to denote this movement was already in use earlier, in the era of the growth of the revolution, and its meaning was strongly influenced by the content of certain pre-revolutionary trends, a modification of which was post-revolutionary Romanticism.
The genre that took its name from the word for the novel (French roman, English romance) in the 16th-18th centuries. was a genre that retained many features of medieval knightly poetics and very little reckoned with the rules of Classicism. A characteristic feature of the genre was fantasy, vagueness of images, disregard for plausibility, idealization of heroes and heroines in the spirit of late conditional chivalry, action in an uncertain past or in indefinitely distant countries, an addiction to the mysterious and magical. To denote features characteristic of the genre, the French adjective “romanesque” and English “romantic” arose. In England, in connection with the awakening of the bourgeois personality and the heightened interest in the “life of the heart,” this word during the 18th century began to acquire new content, attaching itself to those sides of the novel style which found the greatest response in the new bourgeois consciousness, extending to other phenomena that classical aesthetics rejected, but which now began to be felt as aesthetically effective. First of all, it was “romantic” that, without having a clear formal harmony of Classicism, it “touched the heart” and created a mood.
The taste for the “romantic” developed in close connection with the growing cult of the “natural” as opposed to the “artificial,” with feeling as opposed to reason. The latest bourgeois literary criticism has dubbed a number of phenomena expressing these attitudes “pre-Romanticism.” These phenomena are inseparable from that omnipotent subjectivism (“sentimentalism”) which permeated European literature in the decades before the French Revolution, accompanying the growth of bourgeois democratic aspirations (Rousseau and others). In view of all this, the word Romanticism is easily extended, as used by many later authors, to all that bourgeois-democratic movement that rebelled simultaneously against feudalism and against the reformist rationalism of bourgeois enlighteners.
Belinsky’s definition is also based on Romanticism’s identification with all pre-revolutionary subjectivism: “Romanticism is nothing more than the inner world of a person’s soul, the innermost life of his heart.” The discovery of this “inner world” and “innermost life” is the content of the pre-revolutionary literature of the 18th century – from the first English pre-Romantic writers to the German Sturmers, to Goethe and Schiller. All the later ramifications of Romanticism are somehow determined by this discovery. To replace the harmonic stylization of Classicism, which seeks to highlight the abstract-logical essence of what is depicted, “Romantic” poetics puts forward the concept of “picturesque,” a term that became widespread in the 18th century in the sense of “the specific characteristic of painting as opposed to sculpture.” In painting, “romantic” aesthetics especially were put forward by Rembrandt with his sharp opposition of light and shadow, which serves not to reveal a rationally abstract idea, but to create an emotionally rich image. In more vulgar literature, objects associated with Romantic aesthetics serve as “expressive” components – castles, dungeons, caves, the moon in the clouds, etc. Prose easily degenerates into rhetoric, but it can also achieve tremendous eloquence. A brand new kind is created. At a higher level, the same tendency leads to increased “chiaroscuro” when depicting passions, edges easily into imagery that serves not to “decorate the syllable,” but to enhance the effectiveness of the depicted emotions. The pioneers of this new imagery were Rousseau (especially in his prose poems – “Rêveries d'un promeneur solitaire,” 1777-1778) and the young Goethe, whose early poem “Willkommen und Abschied” [1770-1771] can be considered the birth moment of the new European lyric poetry.
Since the 1770s Germany is becoming the main focus of new trends. The underdevelopment of the German economy, which excluded the possibility of direct revolutionary action, gives the liberation movement of the German burghers a purely “ideal” character. The German revolution takes place only in consciousness, not striving or hoping to move into political action. Hence, there is a deep gap between the idea and its implementation in reality. This is how the most characteristic moment of all later Romanticism arises – the contradiction between “ideal” and “reality.”
For half a century, all German culture has been developing under the sign of this characteristic rupture of the politically impotent German bourgeoisie. But at the same time it discovers exceptional creative energy in the specifics of individual areas of cultural creativity. At the time of its greatest political insignificance, Germany is revolutionizing European philosophy, European music and European literature. In the field of literature, a powerful movement, reaching its peak in the so-called “Sturm und Drang,” using all the conquests of the British and of Rousseau, raises them to the highest level, finally breaks with Classicism and bourgeois-aristocratic Enlightenment and opens a new era in the history of European literature. Sturmer innovation is not a formal innovation for the sake of innovation, but a search in a wide variety of directions for an adequate form for a new rich content. Deepening, sharpening and systematizing everything new that was introduced into the literature by pre-Romanticism and Rousseau, developing a number of achievements of early bourgeois realism (for example, Schiller gives its highest completion to the “bourgeois drama” that originated in England), German literature discovers and assimilates the huge literary heritage of the Renaissance (primarily Shakespeare) and folk poetry, also approaching antiquity in a new way. So, against the literature of Classicism, a literature is put forward, partly new, partly revived, richer and more interesting for the new consciousness of the unfolding bourgeois personality.
The German literary movement of the 1760s-80s had a tremendous influence on the use of the concept of Romanticism. While in Germany Romanticism is opposed to the “classical” art of Lessing, Goethe and Schiller, outside Germany all German literature, starting with Klopstock and Lessing, is perceived as innovative, anti-classical, “romantic.” Against the background of the dominance of classical canons, Romanticism is perceived purely negatively, as a movement that throws off the oppression of the old authorities, regardless of its positive content. This sense of anti-classical innovation was associated with the term “Romanticism” in France and especially in Russia, where Pushkin aptly christened it “Parnassian atheism.”
The “romantic” features of this whole European literature are by their very nature not hostile to the general line of the bourgeois revolution. The unprecedented attention to the “innermost life of the heart” reflected one of the most important aspects of the cultural revolution that accompanied the growth of the political revolution: the birth of a person free from feudal guild ties and religious authority, which made possible the development of bourgeois relations. But in the development of the bourgeois revolution (in the broad sense), the self-affirmation of the individual inevitably came into conflict with the real course of history. Of the two processes of “liberation” about which Marx speaks, the subjective liberation of the individual reflected only one process – the political (and ideological) liberation from feudalism. Another process is the economic “liberation” of the small owner from the means of production – perceived by the emancipated bourgeois personality as alien and hostile. This hostility to the industrial revolution and to the capitalist economy is first of all evident in England, where it finds a very vivid expression in the first English Romantic, William Blake. In the future, it is typical for all Romantic literature and goes far beyond its limits. Such an attitude towards capitalism can by no means be regarded as necessarily anti-bourgeois. Typical of course for the ruined petty bourgeoisie and for the destabilized nobility, it is very common among the bourgeoisie itself. “All good bourgeois,” wrote Marx (in a letter to Annenkov), “desire the impossible, that is, the conditions of bourgeois life without the inevitable consequences of these conditions.” The “romantic” denial of capitalism can have the most diverse class content – from petty-bourgeois economically reactionary, but politically radical utopianism (Cobbet, Sismondi) to noble reaction and to a purely “platonic” denial of capitalist reality as a useful but unaesthetic world of “prose,” which must be supplemented by a “poetry” independent from rough reality. Naturally, such a Romanticism flourished especially magnificently in England, where its main representatives were Walter Scott (in his poems) and Thomas Moore. The most common form of Romantic writing is the horror novel. But along with these essentially philistine forms of Romanticism, the contradiction between the personality and the ugly “prosaic” reality of the “century hostile to art and poetry” finds a much more significant expression, for example. in the early (before the expulsion) poetry of Byron.
The second contradiction, from which Romanticism is born, is the contradiction between the dreams of a liberated bourgeois personality and the realities of the class struggle. Initially, the “innermost life of the heart” is revealed in close unity with the struggle for the political emancipation of the class. We find such a unity in Rousseau. But in the future, the first develops in inverse proportion to the real possibilities of the second. Romanticism becomes the reaction of a middle class pressed against both from above – from industrial capitalism – and from below – by revolutionary plebeian elements. The late emergence of Romanticism in France is explained by the fact that for the French bourgeoisie and bourgeois democracy, both in the early revolutionary phase and under Napoleon, there existed no such pressure, In the first phase, radical plebeian mass action – which instills into the petty bourgeoisie the existential fear that generates the “hypertrophy of the inner world” demanded by Romanticism – was prevented thanks to Thermidor. The revolutionary dictatorship of the masses in 1793-94 had no Romantic consequences, since it was short-lived and the outcome of the revolution turned out to be in its favor. After the fall of the Jacobins, the petty bourgeoisie also remained realistic, since its social program was basically fulfilled, and the Napoleonic era – with the Bonapartist “class balance” effectively keeping the interests of the petty bourgeoisie safe from the pressure of large industrial capitalism – was able to switch this class’ revolutionary energy in its own interests. Therefore, before the restoration of the Bourbons, we find in France only the reactionary Romanticism of the noble emigration (Chateaubriand) or the anti-national Romanticism of the individual bourgeois groups that were in opposition to the Empire and were making common cause with foreign intervention (Madame de Stael).
On the contrary, in Germany and England, personality and revolution came into conflict. The contradiction was twofold: on the one hand, between the dream of a cultural revolution and the impossibility of a political revolution (in Germany due to the underdevelopment of the economy, in England due to the long-standing solution of the purely economic tasks of the bourgeois revolution and the impotence of democracy before the ruling bourgeois-aristocratic bloc), on the other, a contradiction between the dream of a revolution and its real appearance. The German burgher and the English democrat were intimidated by two things in the revolution – the revolutionary activity of the masses, so menacingly manifested in 1789-1794, and the “anti-national” character of the revolution, presented in the form of the French conquest. These reasons logically, although not immediately, lead the German opposition bourgeoisie and the English bourgeois democracy to a “patriotic” bloc with their ruling classes. The moment when the “pre-Romantic” German and British intelligentsia leave the French Revolution, as “terrorist” and nationally hostile, can be considered the birth moment of Romanticism in the limited sense of the word. This process unfolded most characteristically in Germany. The German literary movement, which first christened itself with the name Romanticism (for the first time in 1798) and thus had a tremendous influence on the fate of the term “Romanticism,” however, did not have much impact on other European countries (with the exception of Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands). Outside Germany, Romanticism, since it turned its attention to Germany, focused primarily on pre-Romantic German literature, especially on Goethe and Schiller. Goethe is a teacher of European poetry as the greatest exponent of the revealed “innermost life of the heart” (“Werther,” early lyrics), as the creator of new poetic forms, and finally as a poet-thinker who opened the way for literature to master the various philosophical subjects. Goethe is certainly not a romantic in the specific sense. He is a realist. But like the whole German culture of his time, Goethe too stands under the sign of the squalor of German reality. His realism is divorced from the real practice of his national class; he reluctantly remains “on Olympus.” Therefore, stylistically, his realism is clothed in by no means realistic clothes, and this outwardly brings him closer to the Romantics. But Goethe is completely alien to the protest against the course of history so characteristic of the Romantics, just as he is alien to utopianism and a departure from reality.
A different relationship exists between Romanticism and Schiller. Schiller and the German Romantics were sworn enemies, but from a European perspective Schiller must undoubtedly be recognized as a Romantic. Moving away from revolutionary dreams even before the revolution, politically Schiller became a banal bourgeois reformist. But this sober practice was combined in him with a completely Romantic utopia about the creation of a new ennobled humanity, regardless of the course of history, by re-educating it with beauty. It was in Schiller that the voluntaristic “good-naturedness” arising from the contradiction between the “ideal” of a liberated bourgeois personality and the “reality” of the epoch of the bourgeois revolution, which took the desired for the future, was especially vividly expressed. Schiller’s features play an enormous role in all later liberal and democratic Romanticism, beginning with Shelley.
The three stages that German Romanticism went through can be extended to other European literatures of the era of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, remembering, however, that they are dialectical stages, and not chronological subdivisions. At the first stage, Romanticism is still a definite democratic movement and retains a politically radical character, but its revolutionary spirit is already purely abstract and repels itself from concrete forms of revolution, from the Jacobin dictatorship, and from the people’s revolution in general. It is most vividly expressed in Germany in the system of Fichte’s subjective idealism, which is nothing more than the philosophy of an “ideal” democratic revolution that takes place only in the head of a bourgeois-democratic idealist. Parallel phenomena to this in England are the works of William Blake, especially his “Songs of Experience.”
At the second stage, finally disillusioned with the real revolution, Romanticism looks for ways to realize the ideal outside of politics and finds it primarily in the activities of free creative imagination. The concept of the artist as a creator who spontaneously creates a new reality from his fantasy, which played a huge role in bourgeois aesthetics, arises. This stage, representing the maximum sharpening of the specificity of Romanticism, was especially clearly expressed in Germany. As the first stage is associated with Fichte, so the second is associated with Schelling, to whom the philosophical development of the idea of the artist-creator belongs. In England, this stage, without presenting the philosophical wealth that we find in Germany, in a much more naked form represents an escape from reality into the realm of free fantasy.
Along with the frankly fantastic and arbitrary “creativity,” Romanticism at its second stage seeks the ideal in the objectively existing other world that appears to it. From a purely emotional experience of intimate communication with “nature,” something which plays a huge role already in Rousseau comes forth: a metaphysically conscious Romantic pantheism. With the later transition of Romantics to reaction, this pantheism tends to compromise, and then to submission to church orthodoxy. But at first, for example. in the verses of Wordsworth [1798-1805], it is still sharply opposed to Christianity, and in the next generation it is assimilated by the democratic Romantic Shelley without significant changes, but under the characteristic name of “atheism.” Parallel to pantheism, Romantic mysticism also develops, which at a certain stage also retains sharply anti-Christian features (Blake’s “prophetic books”).
The third stage is Romanticism’s final transition to a reactionary position. Disappointed in the real revolution, weighed down by the fantasticness and sterility of its lonely “creativity,” the romantic person seeks support in super-personal forces – nationality and religion. Translated into the language of real relations, this means that the burghers represented by their democratic intelligentsia go to the national bloc with the ruling classes, accepting their hegemony, but bringing them a new, modernized ideology, in which loyalty to the king and the church is justified not by authority or fear, but by the needs of the feeling and the dictates of the heart. Ultimately, at this stage, Romanticism comes to its own opposite, that is, to the rejection of individualism and to complete submission to feudal power, only superficially embellished with romantic phraseology. In terms of literature, such self-denial of Romanticism is the reassured canonized Romanticism of La Motte-Fouqué, Uhland, etc., in terms of politics the “romantic politics” that raged in Germany after 1815.
At this stage, the old genetic link between Romanticism and the feudal Middle Ages acquires new significance. The Middle Ages, as the age of chivalry and Catholicism, becomes an essential component of the reactionary-Romantic ideal. It is interpreted as an age of free obedience to God and lord (Hegel’s “Heroismus der Unterwerfung”).
The medieval world of chivalry and Catholicism is also the world of autonomous guilds; its culture is much more “popular” than the later monarchist and bourgeois. This opens up great opportunities for Romantic demagoguery, for that “democracy of the past,” which consists in replacing the interests of the people with the existent (or dying away) views of the people.
It is at this stage that Romanticism does a lot for the revival and study of folklore, especially folk songs. And it must be admitted that, despite its reactionary goals, Romanticism’s work in this area is of significant and lasting value. Romanticism did much to study the true life of the masses, preserved under the yoke of feudalism and early capitalism.
The real connection of Romanticism at this stage with the feudal-Christian Middle Ages was strongly reflected in the bourgeois theory of Romanticism The concept of Romanticism arises as a style of Christian and medieval in contrast to the “classics” of the ancient world. This view found its fullest expression in Hegel’s aesthetics, but it was widespread in much less philosophically complete forms. Awareness of the deep opposition between the “romantic” worldview of the Middle Ages and the romantic subjectivism of modern times led Belinsky to the theory of two Romanticisms: “the Romanticism of the Middle Ages” – the romance of voluntary submission and resignation, and “newest Romanticism” – progressive and liberating.
Reactionary Romanticism ends the first cycle of Romanticism, engendered by the French Revolution. With the end of the Napoleonic wars and with the beginning of the upsurge that prepares the second round of bourgeois revolutions, a new cycle of revolution begins, which is significantly different from the first. This difference is primarily a consequence of the different character of the revolutionary movement. The French Revolution of 1789-1793 was replaced by many “small” revolutions, which either end in a compromise (the revolutionary crisis in England of 1815-1832), or occur without the participation of the masses (Belgium, Spain, Naples), or where the people, appearing for a short time, give way to the bourgeoisie immediately after the victory (the July Revolution in France). At the same time, no country claims to be an international fighter for the revolution. These circumstances contribute to the disappearance of the fear of revolution, whereas the frenzied revelry of reaction after 1815 strengthens the oppositional mood. The ugliness and vulgarity of the bourgeois system are revealed with unprecedented evidence, and the first awakening of the proletariat, which has not yet embarked on the path of revolutionary struggle (even Chartism observes bourgeois legality), arouses sympathy in bourgeois democracy for “the poorest and most numerous of the classes.” All this makes the Romanticism of this era basically liberal-democratic.
A new type of romantic politics appears – liberal-bourgeois, with resonant phrases arousing in the masses faith in the imminent realization of a (rather vague) ideal, thereby holding them back from revolutionary action, and utopian-petty-bourgeois, dreaming of a kingdom of freedom and justice without capitalism, but not without private property (Lamennais, Carlyle).
Although the Romanticism of 1815-1848 (outside Germany) is painted in a predominantly liberal-democratic color, it can in no way be equated with liberalism or with democracy. The basic discord between ideal and reality remains in Romanticism. The latter continues to be either rejected or voluntarily “transformed.” This allows Romanticism to serve as a means of expression for the purely reactionary noble yearning for the past and the defeatism of the nobility (Vigny). In the Romanticism of 1815-1848, it is not so easy to outline the stages as in the previous period, especially since now Romanticism is spreading to countries that are at very uneven stages of historical development (Spain, Norway, Poland, Russia, Georgia). It is much easier to distinguish three main currents within Romanticism, representatives of which can be recognized as three great English poets of the post-Napoleonic decade – Byron, Shelley, and Keats.
Byron’s Romanticism is the most vivid expression of that self-affirmation of the bourgeois personality, which began in the era of Rousseau. Vividly anti-feudal and anti-Christian, it is at the same time anti-bourgeois in the sense of denying the entire positive content of bourgeois culture, in contrast to its negative anti-feudal nature. Byron was finally convinced of the complete break between the bourgeois liberation ideal and bourgeois reality. His poetry is the self-affirmation of the personality, poisoned by the consciousness of the futility of this self-affirmation. Byron’s “world sorrow” easily becomes an expression of the most diverse forms of individualism that does not find application – whether because its roots are in a defeated class (Vigny), or because it is surrounded by an environment that is immature for action (Lermontov, Baratashvili).
Shelley’s Romanticism is a voluntaristic assertion of utopian ways of transforming reality. This Romanticism is organically linked with democracy. But he is anti-revolutionary, because he puts “eternal values” above the needs of struggle (denial of violence) and views the political “revolution” (without violence) as a certain detail in the cosmic process that should initiate the “golden age” (“Unchained Prometheus” and the final choir of “Hellas”). The representative of this type of Romanticism (with great individual differences from Shelley) was the “Last Mohican of Romanticism,” old man Hugo, who carried his banner to the eve of the era of imperialism.
Finally, Keats can be regarded as the founder of purely aesthetic Romanticism, who sets himself the task of creating a world of beauty, in which one could escape from the ugly and vulgar reality. For Keats himself, aestheticism is closely connected with Schiller’s dream of the aesthetic re-education of mankind and of the real-future world of beauty. But it was not this dream that was taken from him, but a purely practical concern for creating a concrete world of beauty here and now. From Keats come the English aesthetes of the second half of the century, who can no longer be counted among the Romantics, since they are already completely satisfied with what really exists. Essentially the same aestheticism emerged even earlier in France, where Mérimée and Gaultier, from “Parnassian atheists” and participants in Romantic battles, very soon turned into purely bourgeois, politically indifferent aesthetes (i.e. narrow-mindedly conservative) and free from any romantic anxiety.
The second quarter of the 19th century is the time of the widest distribution of Romanticism. in different countries of Europe (and America). In England, which produced three of the greatest poets of the “second cycle,” Romanticism did not form a school and began to retreat early in the face of the forces characteristic of the next stage of capitalism. In Germany, the struggle against reaction was also, to a large extent, a struggle against Romanticism. The greatest revolutionary poet of the era, Heine, emerged from Romanticism, and a romantic “soul” lived in him to the end, but unlike Byron, Shelley, and Hugo, in Heine, the left-wing politician and the Romantic did not merge, but fought.
Romanticism flourished most magnificently in France, where it was especially complex and contradictory, uniting representatives of very different class interests under the same literary banner. In French Romanticism it is especially clear how Romanticism could be an expression of the most varied discrepancy with reality – from the impotent longing of a nobleman (but a nobleman who has absorbed all bourgeois subjectivism) for the feudal past (Vigny) to voluntaristic optimism replacing the true understanding of reality with more or less sincere illusions (Lamartine, Hugo), and to the purely commercial production of “poetry” and “beauty” for the bourgeois who are bored in the world of capitalist “prose” (Dumas the father).
In nationally-oppressed countries Romanticism is closely associated with the national liberation movements, but mainly with the periods of their defeat and impotence. And here Romanticism is an expression of very diverse social forces. Thus, Georgian Romanticism (Baratashvili, Orbeliani) is associated with the nationalist nobility, a completely feudal class, but in the struggle against Russian Tsarism, which sought support in the ideology of the bourgeoisie. National revolutionary Romanticism was especially developed in Poland. If on the eve of the November Revolution  in “Konrad Wallenrod” by Mickiewicz he receives a truly revolutionary accent, after its defeat his specific essence flourishes especially magnificently: the contradiction between the dream of national liberation and the inability of the progressive gentry to unleash a peasant revolution. In general, it can be said that in nationally oppressed countries the Romanticism of revolutionary-minded groups is inversely proportional to their true democracy, their organic connection with the peasantry. The greatest poet of the national revolutions of 1848, Petofi, is completely alien to Romanticism.
Russian Romanticism does not introduce fundamentally new aspects into the general history of Romanticism, being secondary to its Western European counterpart. The most authentic Russian Romantics come after the defeat of the Decembrists. The collapse of hopes, the oppressive reality of Nicholas I’s era create the most suitable environment for the development of romantic moods, for exacerbating the contradiction between ideal and reality. We then observe almost the entire gamut of shades of romanticism – apolitical, closed in metaphysics and aesthetics, but not yet reactionary Schellingism; the “romantic politics” of the Slavophiles; the historical Romanticism of Lazhechnikov, Zagoskin, etc.; the socially colored romantic protest of the advanced bourgeoisie (N. Polevoy); the withdrawal into fantasy and “free” creativity (Veltman, some works of Gogol); finally, the romantic revolt of Lermontov, who was strongly influenced by Byron, but echoed with the German Sturmers. However, even in this, the most romantic period of Russian literature, Romanticism is not a leading direction. Pushkin and Gogol, in their basic line, stand outside Romanticism and lay the foundations for realism. The decline of Romanticism occurs almost simultaneously in Russia and in the West by the 1840s.
Since the 1830s the struggle against Romanticism begins with new realistic positions, the struggle against the denial and voluntaristic distortion of reality in the name of knowing reality as it is. Realism as a literary movement is preceded by a number of phenomena that signify the ideological liquidation of the Romantic period – Hegel’s dialectics, the realistic historicism of French historians (fundamentally opposite to reactionary German historicism, which glorified “the whip just because it was a historical whip”), the enormous successes of natural sciences. With the establishment of the capitalist economy cadres of the intelligentsia are growing, interested in adapting to capitalism, and not in denying it. On the other hand, radical democracy is fighting against Romanticism.
By the time of the revolution of 1848, Romanticism as a trend was largely liquidated, although individual Romantic motives continued to appear in European literature until recently (symbolism, expressionism, etc.).
In Russia, where the tasks of the bourgeois revolution remained unresolved until the socialist revolution of 1917, there was soil for various manifestations of Romanticism (elements of Romanticism in Dostoevsky, the Symbolists). In the Russian bourgeois literature of the era of 1905-1917 there is a lively stylistic connection with Romanticism, which also reflects internal kinship. Blok’s creativity unfolds under the sign of a contradiction between the hatred of the “prodigal son” for real bourgeois reality and fear of the proletarian revolution, with a hopeless search for the ideal either in the other world (Beautiful Lady), or in a voluntarist distortion of reality (the image of “Russia,” the image of Christ in “The Twelve”).
Romanticism proved to be more tenacious, organically connected with the illusions of petty-bourgeois democracy and constant disappointment in them. In this respect, the work of the early Romain Rolland, who later came to a realistic recognition of the proletarian revolution, is characteristic. Various petty-bourgeois Romantics appeared in Russia during the October Revolution. Accepting the revolution, but accepting it not for what it was, the Russian petty-bourgeois intelligentsia had to go through a long period of contradiction between dream and reality. Some of the Romantics associated with the kulak “democracy” became hostile to the proletarian revolution (Klyuev), bogged down in hopeless longing for the unrealized bourgeois-peasant kingdom (Yesenin). The best part, by accepting October first as the only successful plebeian revolution, after many hesitations and twists and turns, managed then to understand its true nature and move on to proletarian positions leading to socialist realism (Bagritsky and others).
It is not possible to give a general stylistic characteristic of Romanticism. It is possible, however, to characterize it by distinguishing it from the Classicism that preceded it and from the bourgeois realism that came to replace it (and partly the preceding realism of the middle of the 18th century), as well as to establish some tendencies characteristic of Romanticism, of which, however, none of them covers the entire Romantic movement and some are mutually exclusive. Romanticism resigns from both sides of Classicism – from its subordination to the conventional tradition (feudal-monarchical authority) and from its rationalism. Classicism seeks to create canonical impersonal beauty, Romanticism seeks free expression of personality. Classicism builds its images rationally and logically, simplifying and generalizing them to the limit and highlighting their logical essence in them. Romanticism (in a broad sense) strives not for a logically harmonious disclosure of an image, but for its greatest emotional efficacy.
More specifically, the romantic “expressionist” theme, the choice of the theme on the basis of pure expressiveness (striking, “sensationalism”), striking the imagination regardless of the quality of this defeat. This theme is a development and refinement of the theme of “horror.” The starting point of such an “ennobled sensation” can be considered the famous “Leonora” by Bürger. The Queen of Spades and many of Mérimée’s stories belong to the same family. This kind of “Romanticism” flourished brightly in the Soviet literature of the NEP period, where it nourished to a large extent the opposition of the brilliance of the recent civil war to “Soviet everyday life” (Babel, partly Tikhonov).
Much more specifically romantic is the tendency to a kind of disembodied imagery arising directly from the desire to create a world alien to reality. It is expressed either by sensory signs, abstracted from their objects, or by such elements of reality, which are least of all similar to ordinary, rigid material bodies – clouds, waves, play of light, etc. This tendency is closely related to the musicalization of the word, the desire to unload the word from the material content and charge it with purely sound efficacy. This tendency, strong in German Romantic lyrics (where it is partly neutralized by the orientation towards folk song), reaches its extreme expression in Shelley, for example – the fourth act of “Unchained Prometheus,” a real orgy of verbal music and disembodied images.
Along with the rich and varied musical orchestration of the Shelley type, Romanticism at certain stages of its development, with great love, developed a simple folk-type song. This, of course, is connected with the democratic roots of Romanticism, but specifically the Romantic song flourishes especially at the third reactionary stage of Romanticism (primarily in Germany) in connection with demagogic “popular” nationalism. At the same time, the development of folk songs by Romantics was very one-sided: they chose the motives of longing, resignation, passivity, or idyllically conciliatory motives. This applies even more to a Romantic fairy tale, through and through idyllic conciliatory.
Another specifically Romantic tendency, directly related to the basic opposition of the ideal to reality, is the tendency to contrast the low, ugly, or comic reality with the ideal dream. The entire poetics of Hoffmann is based on the wide development of this technique, but this also includes such a characteristically Romantic figure as Quasimodo in Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Along with the tendency toward “musicalization,” toward “contrast,” and toward expressive imagery, Romanticism is also characterized by the opposite tendency toward direct and loud expression of feelings in words. This tendency, naturally associated with the emotional self-affirmation of the individual, goes back to the earliest phases of pre-Romanticism (Jung’s Nights, 1742), but does not leave Romanticism until the very end. Degenerating at times to the worst kind of rhetoric, Romanticism on this path sometimes achieved excellent eloquence, creating a weapon that could well be used in political poetry (Hugo, Lermontov).
Realism is opposed primarily as the art of imagination and expression to the art of cognition. Of course, Romanticism, like any art, was a form of cognitive activity, but it was alien to a conscious attitude towards cognition of reality: his task was either to “express” the personality of the poet or to “create” a world that frees from reality or complements reality. It should be noted that for all its anti-realism, Romanticism was not at all alien to the most daring use of images of reality for its own purposes. However, the Romantics subordinated their real images to either the contrasting depiction of the contradiction between dreams and reality (Hoffmann) or expressionistic expressiveness (Mathurin, Janin) and cared least of all about the knowledge of concrete social reality.
Another feature of Romanticism, against which realism fought, was the idealization of heroes and heroines and the inflating of feelings to hyperbolic proportions. In both, Romanticism was essentially little original, being only the last heir of a long tradition, the chivalrous novel of the Middle Ages and early modern period and the “high” genres of Classicism. But in Romanticism, the idealization of heroes is associated with the general concept of the ideal and with the voluntaristic transformation of reality, as well as with the poetics of contrasts.
From our point of view, bourgeois realism has an incomparably greater cognitive and artistic value than Romanticism. However, in bourgeois realism there is a downside: this is, firstly, a tendency towards an objectivist, non-judgmental (that is, essentially slavishly subordinate) attitude to reality, in -second – the tendency to flattening, “prosaization” of reality, to the denial of heroism, etc. Romanticism (at least in some of its trends) is free from both of these tendencies. The Romantic style is intensely emotional and appreciated. But we must remember that this evaluativeness is purely Romantic, since it is essentially verbal and abstract. Romanticism’s love for heroism and wealth of life is not specifically Romantic, but belongs to the most ancient aspirations of human art which could only be killed by the bourgeoisie. The Romantic legacy cannot be rejected in any way, firstly, because Romanticism is based on a passionate (albeit distorted) protest against capitalism, against the “century hostile to poetry and art,” against a system hostile to all the best manifestations of the human personality, a system whose elimination is our victoriously solvable task. Romanticism affirmed the human personality, but under conditions that excluded the possibility of its true affirmation. Rebelling against objective bourgeois reality, it could oppose it only with subjective bourgeois consciousness. But in our time, when the real liberation and assertion of the individual takes place, not in spite of, but as a result of the creation of a new socialist reality, the dead ends and tragedies of Romanticism in the past have significant topical instructiveness.
Secondly, Romanticism was a tremendous manifestation of creative energy directed to art. The great artists of Romanticism enriched the means of expressing artistic literature to a great extent. They did especially a lot for the lyrics, deepening and approving the stylistic revolution begun by Goethe. Critical assimilation of Romanticism’s achievements is an integral part of the general struggle for the literary legacy. If the Romantic theory of poetry and art is unacceptable to us, then we must admit that an enormous amount has been done in the field of concrete criticism of Romanticism. It can even be said that criticism in the modern sense of the term has received widespread practical application only since the time of Romanticism. Finally, we must not forget about the greatest merits of Romanticism in the history of literature, folklore, etc., right down to linguistics.
In our time there is a question about “Soviet Romanticism,” about whether “do we need Romanticism.” In answering this question, one must first of all avoid terminological confusion. If by “Romanticism” we understand it in the exact historical sense, the Romanticism that developed between the Great French Revolution and the first revolutionary uprising of the proletariat, then it must be said that there was no such proletarian (socialist) Romanticism and it cannot be. The proletariat’s rejection of class oppression takes the form not of a dream of an ideal and not of a voluntaristic substitution of illusions for it, but of a material struggle for a different reality, contained in potential already in capitalist reality, but realized only in the practice of the communist revolution. The outlook of the proletariat is “practical materialism,” which excludes all types of Romanticism.
Speaking of revolutionary Romanticism, we often have in mind the early [before 1900] works of Gorky. There is no doubt that there are elements of Romanticism in them – the fantastic nature of the images, the tendency towards idealization. However, the heroic Romanticism of Gorky is not the illusions of a petty-bourgeois Romanticism, but the cheerful confidence of the proletariat, which has not yet risen in its mass to the scientific-communist understanding of the ways of the revolution, but already spontaneously feeling all its possibilities.
Revolutionary Romanticism in the precise sense of the word is alive and natural in the revolutionary literature of the capitalist countries, where it reflects the participation of the petty-bourgeois masses in the revolutionary movement and the enduring existence of petty-bourgeois sentiments in the proletariat. Such Romanticism is characteristic of other proletarian writers from the intelligentsia, who have politically linked themselves with the proletariat, but have not yet so organically assimilated its world outlook as to approach reality in the realistic language of their art. In Soviet literature, poetry of petty-bourgeois origin has not yet been eliminated either. Recently, it has entered a new phase of voluntaristic “assimilation” of the themes of the future society, in addition to solving the real problems of the current stage of the struggle for socialism. Such Romanticism cannot be regarded as a hostile phenomenon.
This understanding of the word “romantic” has recently become quite firmly established in Soviet criticism. Romanticism in this sense includes a number of features that distinguish the art of socialism, which is realistic in nature, from bourgeois realism. This is love for heroics, albeit for heroics which are not fantastic, but which have become not only a reality, but a concrete reality, a mass reality. This is love for the colorfulness and richness of life and nature, an inseparable manifestation of that revelation and enrichment of the socialist personality, before which the bourgeois-Romantic awakening of the personality is like a candle before the sun. Finally, there is a purely stylistic tendency towards forms of expression that differ from the outwardly realistic manner, which, unlike late bourgeois realism, socialist realism does not consider to be its integral feature. For some writers, these features appear in such a stable combination and color their work so clearly that in this sense one can speak of the style of Soviet, socialist Romanticism as a concrete and full-fledged variety of Socialist Realism. A vivid example of such a work can be seen in “Horsemen” by Yanovsky.