Peter Gay, who died May 12 at the age of 91, had a long and estimable academic career, writing “groundbreaking books on the Enlightenment, the Victorian middle classes, Sigmund Freud, Weimar culture and the cultural situation of Jews in Germany,” according to the New York Times. Unfortunately, his last book, on Romanticism, was neither groundbreaking nor estimable.
Why the Romantics Matter is a short book—only 117 pages of text—but it could have been shorter. Despite obligatory references to “the rich romantic past,” Gay seems unable to convince himself, let alone his readers, that the Romantics really do matter. His last, summarizing paragraph confesses that 21st-century readers, himself included, just don’t find Romantic poems or novels worth their time: “We no longer read much William Wordsworth—we have T. S. Eliot. We no longer amuse our free hours with Sir Walter Scott—we have Virginia Woolf.”
As this passage suggests, for Gay, the Romantics are important only as predecessors of the moderns, to whom he devotes the lion’s share of his attention. One might think a focus on modernist writers and artists would be out of place in a book about the Romantics, but Gay solves that problem by repeatedly referring to modernist authors as the “new romantics” or “serious late romantics.” Oscar Wilde, for example, is both “a belated romantic” and “an heir to the romantics.”
One problem with this approach is that most of the modernists not only did not regard themselves as “new romantics” but saw themselves as opponents of Romanticism. In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot rejected the Romantic notion that art, especially poetry, was an expression of feeling: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” He aligned himself with classicism against Romanticism, asserting in “The Function of Criticism” that the difference between classicism and Romanticism could be described as “the difference between the complete and the fragmentary, the adult and the immature, the orderly and the chaotic.”
In the Romantic view, the greatness of art derives from the greatness of the soul of the artist. Thus, the work of art is not so much valuable in itself but, instead, as a means of approaching the inner self of the author. In his “Defence of Poetry,” Percy Bysshe Shelley claimed that the actual written poem was only a “feeble shadow” of the thoughts of the poet: “[W]hen composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline, and the most glorious poetry that has ever been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conceptions of the poet.” According to this view, the role of criticism would be to search for the “original conceptions” on the basis of the inevitably limited written record supplied by the poem and also by referring to what could be learned about the life of the poet. The poet was more important than the poem.
This hierarchy was reversed by the New Criticism that arose as a response to modernist masterpieces such as Eliot’s Waste Land and James Joyce’s Ulysses. For the New Critics, it was the work itself that was important. The biography of the poet or novelist was, if not entirely irrelevant, decidedly secondary. Almost everything worth knowing about a poem or novel could be discovered by paying close attention to the work itself. A work of art was not (as the Romantics assumed) so much an expression of emotion as it was a self-contained object. While poems by Romantics like Wordsworth, Shelley, and Lord Byron seemed to document the personal or spiritual life of the poet himself, modernist works were more like the product of a craftsman whose technical skill effaced any trace of personality.
One can make a case that the modernists were, despite themselves, more influenced by the Romantics than they acknowledged. As Gay rightly observes, they shared an antagonism to the values associated with the middle class, or what the modernists (like the Marxists) called the bourgeoisie. Both the Romantics and the modernists responded to what they saw as society’s lack of proper respect for artists by making extravagant claims on the artists’ behalf, perhaps the most famous of which is Shelley’s assertion that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”