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The Romantics of 1909: Arthur Symons, Pierre Lasserre and T. E. Hulme

Bénédicte COSTE


Arthur Symons’s The Romantic Movement in English Poetry (1909) has elicited scant discussion. Part dictionary of British authors born before 1800, part series of portraits of canonical Romantic poets, The Romantic Movement remains perplexing with its unclear purpose and ungainly format. This article argues that Symons’s monograph should be approached in the turn of the century debate on the definition and value of British Romanticism. As opposed to T. E. Hulme’s ‘Romanticism and Classicism’ (1912?), itself indebted to Pierre Lasserre’s Le Romantisme français. Essai sur la révolution dans les sentiments et dans les idées au XIXe siècle (1907), Symons’s study appears as a defence of the romantic aesthetics and fin the siècle cosmopolitanism against Lasserre’s and Hulme’s emphases on nationalism and Classicism.

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1. A strange collection

1As an epigraph to The Romantic Movement in English Poetry (1909) Arthur Symons chose a quotation from Blake: ‘All ages are equal; but genius is always above the age’.1 Symons was reproducing Walter Pater’s quotation from Blake in The Renaissance (1873) (Pater 1988, xxxi), but the quotation also encapsulates Symons’s dilemma in his book. Restricting himself to British writers born before 1800, and compiling a dictionary—the table of contents lists 89 writers by their date of birth from 1722 to 1800—Symons also sought to delineate the specificity of each author as he summarized in his one-page ‘Preface’: ‘the poet in his poetry, his poetry in the poet’ (‘Preface’, np). Trying to reconcile two different antagonistic perspectives—chronology and canon—, Symons’s study appears as an ungainly book, somehow reading like a catalogue with longer articles devoted to recognized poets. Departing from his mentor Walter Pater’s careful method of portrayal by frequently sticking to anecdotes and sketching,2 Symons uses the same approach as in Studies in Prose and Verse (1904) with its essays on French and British nineteenth-century writers. The Romantic Movement also stands as one of the worst examples of Symons’s unfortunate habit of recycling articles previously published in periodicals into a collection. For Symons’s biographer, the study is a ‘disappointing’ study of the Romantics. ‘Designed as a dictionary’, it ‘contains discrete sections on eighty-nine poets, most of them obscure .... Except for the splendid essays on the major poets, which [Symons] had previously published, the rest of the book is a sourcebook for students or researchers rather than an organic work of criticism.’ (Beckson 1987, 270) The Romantic Movement was not reprinted in Symons’s 1924 Collected Works but appeared in 1969 and in 1978 in the US (Symons 1969; Symons 1978).

2For his part, Symons, who, at the time, was a poet and an influential and busy journalist disseminating cosmopolitan literary culture in various periodicals, had a more optimistic vision of his attempt to accommodate a chronological vision of literature with a focus on individual writers. In a letter to poet and critic Edmund Gosse on April 5, 1908, when he was ‘still at [The Romantic Movement], finding gaps and filling them up’, he hoped that the book would be his ‘best prose book’ (Beckson and Munro 1989, 195). Simultaneously he was also editing A Book of Parodies from different writers, featuring Swinburne’s parody of Tennyson’s ‘Higher Pantheism’ (Symons 1908, 318). His William Blake, a monograph comparing Blake to Nietzsche published in autumn 1907, was hailed for its ‘genuine literary scholarship’ (Beckson 247). Symons was also searching for an all-embracing artistic theory, ‘a system of aesthetics, of all the arts’ mentioned the Preface to Plays, Acting and Music (Symons 1909, vii), which he never achieved. Arranged before Symons’s breakdown in autumn 1908, The Romantic Movement may have suffered from the shadow cast by its author’s provisional disappearance from print and subsequent career. However, it deserves some recognition as ‘an undoubted shift away from both Arnoldian and Paterian aesthetic ideals’ (Stokes 1988, 133), offering an interesting vision of turn of the century criticism and reception of Romanticism. In a time when monographs and studies were devoted to English literature for an expanding and increasingly diverse readership, Symons ambitioned to compete with T. Watts-Dunton’s Renascence of Wonder (1903) and John Courthope’s History of English Poetry (1895-1910),3 both of which are directly cited in his monograph. Oxford Professor of Poetry Courthope’s lectures published as Life in Poetry, Law in Taste (1901) defended an imperialist vision and universal literary principles derived from Aristotle against the relativism of W. Pater4 and G. Saintsbury, a thesis maintained in his History of English Poetry (1895-1910) where he argued that English poetry unfolds as an expression of the nation. Symons’s fin de siècle overtones furthermore contrast with the writings of T. E. Hulme and the French Pierre Lasserre, staunchly opposing Romanticism for the sake of a return to Classicism. The result of more than a decade of labour,5 The Romantic Movement may be seen not so much as belated or unconvincing with its ‘lengthy introduction’ as Beckson argues (270), than as an increasingly marginalized form of literary history. An attempt to prolong the aesthetics of the literary portrait when it was becoming less acceptable, Symons’s cosmopolitan views and comparative poetics represent an uneasy transition between Victorian and Modernist visions of Romanticism, between two different conceptions of literature and literary value, and two differing visions of the relationship between literature and politics. As is the case for other literary issues, those were furthermore embedded within a more general cultural contest opposing men of letters and scholars: Symons was a self-taught journalist while Watts-Dunton, the leading literary critic of The Athenaeum from 1876 to 1902, John Courthope, Sorbonne-graduate Pierre Lasserre and Cambridge-educated (and twice rusticated) T. E. Hulme were academically-trained essayists.

3Symons may have attempted to do for Romanticism what he had achieved for Symbolism in his 1899 Symbolist Movement in Literature.6 With 250 copies in less than 3 weeks the book had sold well and was read by the undergraduates, before it came to influence ‘the course of [T. S. Eliot]’s life’ (Eliot, 1928, 5). Symons hoped that his new book would meet with the same success, but there are notable differences between The Romantic Movement and The Symbolist Movement, both in terms of form and content. The Symbolist Movement is a structured collection of articles chronologically devoted to French writers and poets, presenting an original albeit waning movement. The Romantic Movement is an array of short notices of poets, playwrights and essayists alternating with full-length portraits, therefore validating the titular ‘movement’ and Symons’s choice of comprehensiveness for his monograph. Most of the longer portraits published in the early 1900s and simply reprinted, are devoted to Landor,7 Wordsworth,8 Keats,9 Shelley,10 Clare,11 and Byron12 whom Symons sees quite favourably, while original and shorter notices are devoted to lesser-known authors, giving the book a fin de siècle mosaic-like aspect. Writers are not regrouped by genre or schools as Symons privileges a strict individual approach of writers and writings. Both his rejection of criteria for valuing writers and his chronological list result in reducing all writers to their date of birth while he uses a biting irony to disparage second-rate writers such as John Home: ‘“Blush not, flower of modesty / As well as valour, to declare thy birth.” The lines are typical of a dramatist who, in his time, made theatrical successes in London and Edinburgh, and, by some strange delusion, led his contemporaries into an admiration which seems to us unmerited and unintelligible.’ (Symons 23) This unexpected approach is reinforced by Symons’s claims of having consulted ‘no histories of literature, nor essays about it, except for the bare facts of a man’s life or work’—arguably an insincere pronouncement which radicalizes Pater’s famous question in the Preface to The Renaissance —‘What is this song or picture, this engaging personality presented in life or in a book, to me?’13by erecting personal taste as a guide, and one which also resonates with his ‘Introduction’ describing romantic poets as having departed from ‘tradition’.

2. Prose and Poetry

4With its short ‘Preface’ and longer ‘Introduction’, The Romantic Movement is doubly framed. In the ‘Preface’ Symons acknowledges that the expression ‘romantic movement’ has become ‘an idol of the market-place’ (16), certainly in reference to numerous editions and studies of Romanticism published in the late 1890s-early 1900s, including his editions of Byron’s and Clare’s poetry,14 and defines Romanticism as ‘what we find most characteristic in the renewal of poetry after its long banishment’ during the 18th century. Within history, the movement appears a specific return, calling for Symons’s exegesis focused on ‘one thing only: the poet in his poetry, his poetry in the poet; it is the same thing.’ (‘Preface’, np) Conflating poetry and poet, Symons justifies his use of Sainte-Beuve’s literary portrait mixing biographical details and literary analyses and argues for a personal approach of a movement characterized by the rise of personality in poetry, positing himself as a belated Romantic engaging with contemporary critics.

5In his three-part ‘Introduction’, Symons revisits the definition of poetry and prose taking his cue from Walter Pater’s ‘Romanticism’ (1876), ‘The School of Giorgione’ (1877) and ‘Style’ (1888). For Pater, ‘the romantic character in art’ is firstly ‘the addition of strangeness to beauty’ (Pater 1931, 246), and secondly the result of a ‘temper’ constantly seeking novelty. It therefore appears as a transhistorical element. Such a definition results in the blurring of the distinction between prose and poetry, which was further dismissed in ‘Style’ in 1888.15

6Equating poetic language with rhythm,16 Symons quotes approvingly from Wordsworth’s Preface to the Lyrical Ballads to define verse as ‘the very finest kind of form’ (3), and prose as ‘recorded speech’, existing only as ‘a written document’ (4). In ‘no sense an art’ (5), possibly stemming from speech and appearing first as an anomaly, prose is necessarily without ‘limits’ (5), progressively acquiring laws of its own. In both lyrical verse and in spoken language, words are used rhythmically as notes in music, although Symons is careful not to conflate music and poetry when analysing notable Romantic poets or assimilating their verse to sculpture or painting. When used rhythmically, words do not produce music, but an ‘atmosphere’ (6), exceeding their mere meaning. Eelying on ‘substance’, i.e. content, poetry transports readers, but prose ‘has no wings’ (6), being ‘the language of what we call real life’ and providing ‘an illusion of external reality’ (6). With writers like Balzac in the nineteenth century, prose acquired a ‘new power’ of ‘“stationing” emotion in a firm and material way’ (7).17 It proved flexible18 enough to accommodate physical and moral changes, developing into the novel and the prose play, genres with unlimited opportunities that Symons ranks above essays, or historical and scientific writings.19

7The function of prose as the natural medium of life may explain why it appears to be the privileged outlet for self-confession and ‘autobiography’, as is shown by Rousseau’s works. Since feeling must precede writing—‘Prose listens at the doors of all the senses, and repeats their speech almost in their own tones.’ (9)prose is the appropriate medium for transforming sensations and feelings into thought, 20 appearing as the medium of carefully weighted inner expression: ‘All the best fiction, narrative or dramatic, is a form of confession, personal or vicarious’ (8). For its part, poetry begins ‘where prose ends’: therefore, its ‘region … will thus be always the beyond, the ultimate, and with the least possible chance of any confusion of territory.’ (9) In his normative defence of the claims of prose, Symons echoes Pater’s careful appreciation of the nature of prose and poetry in ‘Style’ with the argument that ‘the beauties of prose are many, and it is the business of criticism to estimate them as such’.21 He also re-visits the hierarchy of prose and poetry by endowing prose with a genealogy and specificity of its own, so as to substantiate the thesis that the Romantic writers respected that difference: ‘The movement possesses ‘a certain economy … a sense of the limits of poetry, of exactly what we can and cannot do.’ (15).

3. ‘the man of genius is not of his age, but above it’

8Defining poetry as an ‘essence’ (9), and discussing its historical inscription, Symons refuses to consider the genre as a given fashion subjected to the law of evolution or recurrence, and severed from any individual materialization. Poetry is not a self-sufficient medium that can be studied apart from its producers. While French essayist Remy de Gourmont,22 whom Symons knew quite well, is expounding ‘a theory, at present much in vogue’ that ‘“works are to be studied, without too much importance being given to their writers”’ (10), Symons stands against that impersonal form of literary history, refusing to drop the poet, i.e. the subject of poetry.

9He also opposes critics for whom ‘the taste of the times’ produces poetic genius (10). Against Courthope’s History of English Poetry, Symons argues that poets shape the taste of the age by markedly departing from its current version, as is shown by Chatterton. Taken as a genius and as an example of the Baudelairean ‘alchemist of the mind’, Chatterton ‘transmuted base metal into gold.’ (10) Finding ‘accounts in black letters’ and turning them ‘into living poetry’, he departed from tradition, a gesture with which ‘the whole modern romantic movement began, consciously and as a form of achieved art’ (11). The taste of an age simply provides a poet with literary and intellectual circumstances and can even hinder him from ‘speaking out in his own and the only way’ (12), therefore demonstrating that genius is always above one’s age. Not only was prose the dominant genre of the century, poetry standing apart from ‘the rest of English poetry’ (12), but the eighteenth century was dominated by Pope, ‘a writer of extraordinary prose capacity and finish’ (11), and one that Symons does not credit for his poetry, therefore highlighting Chatterton whose conspicuous absence is thus veiled from The Romantic Movement.

10Being reduced, influence partakes more often than not of the ‘lucky or unlucky accident’: Coleridge’s opium taking contributed to ‘the making of the man who is the poet’ (13), and may explain something more than his method, but cannot explain his specific ‘power of creation’ (13). Symons’s pronouncement radicalizes Sainte-Beuve’s art of the literary portrait since the poetry is no longer within the poet23 but becomes located in his or her very otherness, almost defeating any explanation while the critical task is to distinguish poetry where it exists and to ‘cast aside all theories of evolution, of the natural growth of genius’. The critic

must clear his mind of all limiting formulas, whether of milieu, Weltschmerz, or mode. He must disregard all schools or movements as other than convenient and interchangeable labels. He must seek only poetry, and he must seek poetry in the poet and nowhere else. (14)

11Understanding genius in its fin de siècle sense, Symons concludes that it ‘is always an exception, always something which would be a disease if it were not a divine gift.’ (14) That emphasis on abnormality echoes the ‘spiritual and moral perversity’ (Symons 1893, 859) of his epoch-making ‘Decadent Movement in Literature’, although on a more muted mode.

4. Symonsian Romanticism

12Turning to the qualities that define Romanticism, Symons considers ‘the poetry of the beginning of the nineteenth century … which we can roughly group together as the romantic movement’ (14). Taking his cue from Pater’s ‘Post-Script’ (formerly ‘Romanticism’) and Baudelaire’s writings,24 he partly plagiarizes Pater by defining Romantic poetry by ‘the quality of its imagination’, i.e., ‘a kind of atmosphere which adds strangeness to beauty’ (15). In ‘The School of Giorgione’ (a essay published in 1877 and included in The Renaissance from 1888) Pater had praised Venetian painting for the atmosphere it cast on ‘natural things’25 and for ‘that modulated unison of landscape and persons—of the human image and its accessories— …, so that, in it, neither personage nor scenery is ever a mere pretext for the other.’ (Pater 98) For Symons, the British imagination transforms ‘the bare outlines of poetical reality’, ‘clothing them with an atmosphere which is the actual atmosphere of England.’ (15). Adding mystery to the beauty of natural things, such an atmosphere constituted a core element of English poetry ‘from the beginning.’ (15) That definition allows the inclusion of the Romantics in a genealogy including Chaucer, Spenser, the Elizabethans, and the Metaphysical poets, whose poetry can be characterized by ‘a sense of the limits of poetry’ (15).

13In the beginning of the nineteenth century, within ‘the imaginative atmosphere which is the very breath of poetry’ (16), an outburst of the romantic movement took place—an echo of Pater’s ‘[o]utbreaks’ (‘Post-Script’ 1931, 250)—starkly contrasting with the eighteenth century having ‘shut the door on imagination’ (16). Signs had shown that ‘Pan grew uneasy in the park, and impatient to return to the forest’ (16), and ‘Romance’ soon ‘rose out of the grave of Chatterton, and poetry, after Burns, was no longer in bondage to the prose and rational mind.’ (16)

14In turn Symons celebrates the late-nineteenth-century ‘cult’ of Chatterton (Bristow and Mitchell 2015) but carefully distinguishes his views from those of Theodore Watts-Dunton, also a fin de siècle Chattertonian, who had described the poet as the ‘renascence of wonder incarnate’ in the Preface to J.H. Wards’ Chatterton, while entitling his 1904 essay for Chambers Cyclopedia of English Literature ‘The Renascence of Wonder in English Poetry’.26 By overtly making a reference to Watts-Dunton’s ‘Renaissance of Wonder’ envisaged as a practical short-hand formula to describe the Romantic movement, Symons strikes a different note by noting that the formula ‘[p]oetry is apparent pictures of unapparent realities’ needs to be completed by Zoroaster’s words also mentioned in Watts-Dunton’s study (17). The important point is ‘not that there should be realities which are unapparent, of which the poet gives apparent pictures, [but that they] should be realities.’ (17) Imagination, the characteristic quality of Romantic poets enabling them to realize those ‘unapparent realities’ becomes preeminent (17), along with ‘sight’, for the more truthful heir to Romanticism that Symons discreetly claims to be. Unsurprisingly, sight is equated to imagination: ‘Imagination … is sight, not wonder; a thing seen; not an opening of the eyes to see it.’ (17) Therefore, the renaissance of vision and the wish to turn visions into ‘realities’,27 as they were to the great imaginative poet are constitutive of Romanticism (17). When Imagination is defined as sight, poets become ‘the great visionaries’ who see ‘without wonder’ (17) such as Wordsworth for whom ‘[s]ight … is feeling’ (95). In an almost Symbolist perspective, the Romantic movement appears as ‘the reawakening of the imagination, a reawakening to a sense of beauty and strangeness in natural things, and in all the impulses of the mind and the senses’ which materialized in different canonical poets, although it was ‘not always a conscious one’ (17). The true Romantic battle pitted poetry against rhetoric, with Wordsworth as the leader and Coleridge as ‘the more authentic lawgiver’ (18) while William Blake was ‘inventing a new magic in English speech’ (18). The 1800s were the time when a new generation of individual poets arose, including Byron with ‘a new, personal manner of [his] own’ (16).

15Pater saw the beginning of the nineteenth century as a time of a general ‘disillusion’ after the failure of the French Revolution and more importantly the relativism introduced by Kant:

16‘In the mental world too a great outlook had lately been cut off. … Kant did but furnish its innermost theoretic force to a more general criticism, which had withdrawn from every department of action, underlying principles once thought eternal.’ (Pater 1895, 11) Pater does not explicitly mention the fate of religion (‘certain ancient natural hopes’) and this omission betrays the vanishing role of ‘that all-embracing prospect of life’ (12). Deprived of ‘that exhilarating yet pacific outlook’ (12), ‘the typical personality of the day [is] Obermann, the very genius of ennui’ (12). Such atmosphere translates in ‘the exotic phases of French fiction as inaugurated by Balzac; the art exaggerated, in matter or form, or both, as in Hugo or Baudelaire’ (13). For Pater, as religion vanishes literature partakes of some ‘artificial stimulus’ (12).

17However, Symons has a different view and links poetry and religion, embedding them in an atmosphere of regained liberty.28 Romanticism becomes a revolt against the eighteenth-century tradition, a return to nature including the natural part of man29 and sometimes ‘dwarf[ing] the human figures in the landscape’ (17). Romanticism also saw the return of an ‘arduous and discreet cultivation of that ‘continual slight novelty’ without which poetry cannot go on in any ‘satisfactory way’ (20). Romanticism finally appears as ‘the emancipation of the world and of the mind and of the vehicle of poetry from the bondage of fact, opinion, formality and tradition’ so that ‘imagination [could] come in’ (18). Equated with a ‘personal confession’, ‘an evocation’, or ‘“an instant made eternity”’, poetry became an end in itself, severed from all story-telling impulse, virtue or learning. Therefore, studying Romantic poetry is studying ‘whatever is essential in English poetry; … whatever is essential in poetry.’ (20)

18Symons’s vision of Romanticism is indebted to the fin de siècle which foregrounded literary autonomy along with an emphasis on historical change against a background of permanence. Symons keeps most of the late-Victorian tenets, amongst which a discreet Hegelianism both in his conception of Romanticism as a specific outburst within a series of historical poetic emergences, and in the dialectics between the genius and his times, somehow departing from Pater’s praise of discontent and displeasure as the driving force of literary and cultural change. More intriguingly, the poetic past recapitulated in The Romantic Movement appears to be devoid of influence on the present: Symons seems to be nailing the coffin of the Romantic movement by nailing the coffin of the nineteenth century, presenting as Stokes noted ‘the strongest claim to be the last Romantic’ (Stokes 146). Symons’s emphasis on imagination is also a quiet but firm re-inscription of Romanticism within an English tradition at the same time as it also confers a discreet Symbolist dimension to the movement by privileging sight over wonder. A quintessential fin de siècle study published in the late 1900s, The Romantic Movement with its covert appropriation of other texts such as those of Pater and Baudelaire is also to be recontextualized in the period’s discussion of Romanticism while its format, ungainly as it may appear, displays Symons’s project of establishing his own credentials in a larger discussion.

5. Symons, Lasserre and Hulme

19As Symons was busily arranging his dictionary, German literature scholar Pierre Lasserre was publishing Le Romantisme français, a monograph that T.E. Hume read eagerly and cited approvingly. As opposed to the conclusion of The Romantic Movement in terms of approach, and vision, Le Romantisme français proved quite influential on Hulme’s ‘Romanticism and Classicism’ (1912?), advocating a complete break with the immediate past. Published in Speculations (1924), it became a major contribution to shaping literary and artistic modernism. Like Symons’s Romantic Movement, ‘Romanticism and Classicism’ is also embedded within the period’s heated discussions on the meaning of ‘Romanticism’ which took place in Alfred Orage’s The New Age (aptly named ‘A Weekly Review of Politics, Literature and Art’) to which Hulme significantly contributed to from 1909.

20As early as 1907 Orage had published ‘The New Romanticism’ to equate great individuals with the ‘guardians’, or the elite class of Plato’s ideal republic, before the appellation of ‘Romantic’ resurfaced with different values. In his review of The Man who Was Thursday, R. L. Grainger referred to G.K. Chesterton as ‘The Last of the Romantics’ (Grainger 493-4) but the debate soon assumed a more controversial tone, significantly in relation to the 1890s in France and to Verlaine. On 11 February 1909,30 the poet F. R. Flint derided the budding Poets’ Club’s only publication (For Christmas MDCCCCVIII), thereby triggering an acerbic answer from T. E. Hulme who lamented: ‘When, oh when, shall we finish sentimentalising about French poets in cafés!’, before labelling Flint ‘a belated romantic born out of due time, [carrying] on the mythical tradition of the poètes maudits. Nurtured on Mürger, he is obsessed by the illusion that poets must be addicted to Circean excess and discoloured linen.’31 In a letter to the editor on 25 February, Flint responded that his ‘concern’ was not with men or social mores but with ‘poetry’, and further lambasted the Poets’ Club.32 Obviously Romanticism was both a sensitive topic and label all the more so as Orage’s socialist weekly increasingly defended more conservative literature after 1912. As M. Wallace noted, ‘the reaction against Romanticism and the philosophy of Liberalism … was one of the most significant features of The New Age … during these years.’ (Wallace 1967, 213) Such reaction provides a quite different context to Symons’s Romantic Movement, which, for its part, was published in autumn 1909, at a time when Symons could not engage in controversy or even in defending his opus magnum. The reaction against Romanticism climaxed in Hulme’s article, itself fuelled by Lasserre’s Le Romantisme français.

21More pointedly than The Romantic Movement in English Poetry, Le Romantisme français discussed national poetry against a European background.33 In what was originally a PhD thesis defended at the Sorbonne, Lasserre echoed Symons in noting the importance of Rousseau, going as far as to locate the origin of French Romanticism in his writings, but he rejected Rousseau’s ‘system of feeling, thinking and acting according to the primitive nature of humanity’34 as fanciful.35 By opposing the primitive nature of man with ‘the artifice and the poverty of civilisation’,36 romantics and revolutionaries had led to individualism.37 As opposed to Symons’s approval of Romantic individuality, Lasserre reduced Romanticism to destructive radical individualism, therefore envisioning it foremost as a political illness with literary materializations. By translating the Rousseauist moral revolution, Rousseau’s and the French Revolution’s heirs had privileged form over content until the 1860s when a reaction emerged still tainted by Romanticist ethos and aesthetics.38 With no words strong enough to disparage it,39 Lasserre traced the history of Romanticism through a careful detailed study of nineteenth-century French writers along Sainte-Beuve’s method of literary portraiture before more or less explicitly calling for a return to French classical values including nationalism.40 A compagnon de route to the French monarchists and staunch nationalists of the Action française, although he afterwards took his distance from their germanophobia, Lasserre heralded the return of an overt political dimension in the study of literature that also materialized in Courthope’s defence of the British Empire along with his conflation of ‘classical’ with national literature. Such dimension fraught with jingoistic overtones strongly contrasts with Symons’s late-nineteenth-century peaceful cosmopolitanism and more muted emphasis on national poetry. But as S. Zékian notes, Lasserre simply reverses the positive values attached to Romanticism in the nineteenth century while remaining steeped in them.

22Lasserre’s theses were quickly adopted by T. E. Hulme both in ‘The New Philosophy of Art as Illustrated in Poetry’, a lecture delivered at Clifford’s Inn Hall on 15 July 1912 (Ferguson 2002, 112), which was possibly the blueprint of ‘Romanticism and Classicism’. At the time Hulme was a budding essayist and a strong advocate of Henri Bergson whose Introduction à la métaphysique he translated in 1912 (Ferguson 2003, 97).41 Like Symons, he had travelled to France where he had met Pierre Lasserre in Paris on his way to Bologna to hear Bergson at the 4th International Congress of Philosophy in April 1911.42 Knowledgeable about continental philosophy, Hulme began to contribute to The New Age in 1909 before contributing a number of articles to the reactionary weekly The Commentator in 1911 (Martin, 1967, 221; Hadjiyiannis 2013, 25-41) where he declared himself ‘a certain kind of Tory’ who could not ‘stand romanticism’ (qtd. Ferguson 111). By associating Romanticism with Liberalism and Classicism with Conservatism and by quoting Paul Elmer More’s definition of Romanticism as ‘the illusory substitute of the mere limitless expansion of our impulsive nature for the true infinite within the heart of man’,43 Hulme outflanked Orage, thereby fuelling the modernist reaction against Romanticism and the philosophy of Liberalism.

23Pitting Romanticism against Classicism, Hulme paradoxically chose to follow in the footsteps of Stendhal,44 a notable French advocate of the claims of Romanticism over Classicism in 1823. Knowingly or not Hulme echoed the opposition taken up by Pater in 1876 in ‘Romanticism’.45 Hulme’s return to the original opposition brought Symons’s glaring absence back to the fore. Using voluntarily disparaging terms to define Romanticism, he called for, and forecasted a revival of Classicism. However, Hulme departed from Lasserre’s fierce nationalism by his emphasis on British Romanticism and by deriving some of his ideas from Bergson, at the time Lasserre’s bête noire. Using stark dichotomies and striking metaphors such as that of the well and the bucket to describe Romanticism and Classicism respectively,46 and labelling Romanticism a ‘spilt religion’, Hulme set to revise their old opposition by first recalling its strictly political side somehow forgotten in the late-nineteenth century. Romanticism was promoting the claims of infiniteness in contrast with Classicism’s recognition of human nature’s limits and its defence of order and tradition; Romanticism was a continuous whine contrasting with Classicism’s measure and self-restraint. It had projected a dangerous ‘false light’ (‘that never was’47) resulting in the addiction of readers to unreality. Accordingly, Hulme called for ‘a new technique, a new convention’48 resulting in a renewal of Classicism. Reproving Ruskin for his wrong metaphysics, he advocated a form of beauty found in ‘small, dry things’ that was to prove so influential on Imagist poetry. Still imbued with ideas of degeneration, he noted that Romanticism, like all products, ‘grows old and decays.’ (121) The Elizabethans had shown that ‘[e]ach field of artistic activity is exhausted by the first great artists who gather a full harvest from it’ (122). As further harvest could only be scarcer, the conclusion became predictable: ‘A romantic movement must have an end of the very nature of the thing. It may be deplored, but it can’t be helped—wonder must cease to be wonder.’ With that unmistakable reference to Watts-Dunton’s Poetry and the Renascence of Wonder, Hulme was dismissing Romanticism and late-nineteenth-century approaches to literature. Also contesting Watts-Dunton’s expression, Symons was not prepared to dismiss a movement he saw quite favourably. But despite his acerbic tone, Hulme joined Lasserre and Symons as essayists still imbued in Romantic frames and categories.49 As Krieger was one of the first to point out, Hulme’s position in ‘Romanticism and Classicism’ stood at odds with his ‘Bergson’s Theory of Art’ because Hulme was confusing ‘two quite antithetical movements’—‘rationalistic progressivism’ and a more conservative ‘Germanic Romanticism’ (Krieger 1953, 310).

24The debate on the nature and value of Romanticism was not restricted to those talented writers, who, despite their differing political and cultural agenda, proved still steeped in unacknowledged Hegelianism; the early 1910s saw a wealth of monographs and essays devoted to a reordering and rewriting of literary history along different lines and methodologies by authors coming from different educational backgrounds. Lasserre’s extremely negative version of Romanticism and Hulme’s prophecy of a return to Classicism gaining the upper hand on Symons’s vindication of renewal and art for art’s sake were part of a larger revision of literary history. In the first chapter to English Literature, 1880-1905 aptly entitled ‘Introductory. Classicism and Romanticism’, J. M. Kennedy attacked Liberalism, materialism, idealism, Romanticism, and atheism as a complex of ideas often associated with one another (J. M. Kennedy, 1913, 1-27), while in the US, Paul Elmer More, editor of The Nation and author of the 11 volumes of Shelburne Essays between 1904 and 1921, exposed the lack of restraint of nineteenth-century literature, advocating the recognition of higher laws to check the relativism of modern thought. In parallel, I. Babbitt was developing a sustained critique of nineteenth-century literature and criticism in ‘a sequence of anti-Romantic works’ (Baldick 1995, 35). The debate continued to rage with various levels of intensity: not only was Lasserre’s ‘brûlot’ (Zékian 275) reprinted until the 1920s, but as late as 1926, (possibly in response to Speculations) Georgian poet Lascelles Abercrombie devoted a monograph to Romanticism stressing its subjective element as opposed, this time, to realism: ‘Romanticism is a withdrawal from outer experience to concentrate upon inner experience’ (Abercrombie 1926, 33). A Spectator’s review castigated ‘those old, outworn terms of literary criticism, romantic and classical.’50 As outworn as they appeared, the terms could not be put to rest.

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Abercrombie, Lascelles. Romanticism. London: M. Secker, 1926. Print.

[unsigned]. ‘Review of Romanticism by Lascelles Abercrombie.’ The Spectator (4 December 1926): 47. Print.

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Electronic reference

Bénédicte COSTE, « The Romantics of 1909: Arthur Symons, Pierre Lasserre and T. E. Hulme », E-rea [Online], 14.1 | 2016, Online since 15 December 2016, connection on 25 May 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.5609

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About the author

Bénédicte COSTE

University of Burgundy
Bénédicte Coste is Professor of Victorian Studies at the University of Burgundy. She mainly specialises in late-nineteenth-century writing and culture. She has devoted three monographs in French on Walter Pater and is currently working on a monograph in English on the literary dialogue between Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde. She has translated almost all essays by Pater into French, including The Renaissance. With Catherine Delyfer and Christine Reynier, she co-edited Reconnecting Aestheticism and Modernism (Routledge, 2016), an exploration of the dis/continuities between Aestheticism and Modernisms.

By this author

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