On Romanticism and Youth

ROMANTICISM is usually criticized as if it were a very ancient thing; whereas it is really a very recent thing, and especially a very revolutionary thing. It was the very latest Revolt of the Young, previous to the Revolt of the Young which now attacks it. Of course, there is a difference between Romanticism and Romance. Romance, in its healthiest sense, is as old as the world; and even in a more special sense it is inspired by that particular intensity of colouring and pointed energy of outline which belonged to the shields, the windows, and the pennons of medievalism. Medieval romance, which was a sort of pattern for modern romance, came from the vividness of visionary or spiritual experience leaving a sort of glamour or glory around all experience. But it did throw that coloured light especially on the experience of love, and, in some sense, modelled romance on religion; as Chaucer called the legendary lovers The Saints of Cupid. In that sense we may say that romance belonged to the Middle Ages; and in a deeper sense that it belonged to any ages. Romanticism, however, was a particular modern movement, and it was in most ways particularly modern. 

It was akin to Feminism, in what is now called 'putting Woman upon a pedestal'. It was also akin to ideal democracy; which might well be called 'putting Man upon a pedestal'. Indeed, there is a curious and illuminating historical parallel between these two ideas, that seemed both new and true in the nineteenth century. I am far from saying they are not true merely because they are no longer new. I have a great deal of sympathy with both of them. I am merely noting the historical fact that, if they are not new, they were very recently regarded as new. The Republican who wore the Red Cap talked, if not as if there had never been any Republicans in the past, at least as if there were going to be nothing else except Republicans in the future. The Romantic who wore the Red Waistcoat talked as if the old world had been imprisoned in Classicism and the new world would be thrown open only to Romanticism. Each believed himself to be an extremist; but each was, in fact, a moderate who had only reached the middle of his own road, and had no real idea to what extreme it would lead. Each was a bridge hung between two ages. Each was bringing with him a living thing out of the old world, which could only perish in the new.

For one very simple thing was true both of Love and Liberty: the gods of the Romantics and the Republicans. They were both simply fragments of Christian mysticism, and even of Christian theology, torn out of their proper place, flung loosely about and finally hurled forward into an age of hard materialism which instantly destroyed them. They were not really rational ideas, still less rationalistic ideas. At least, they were never rational ideas after they had left off being religious ideas. One of them was a hazy human exaggeration of the sacramental idea of marriage. The other was a hazy human exaggeration of the brotherhood of men in God. When the Romantic laid his hand on his Red Waistcoat, and swore to George Sand or some other lady that their souls were two affinities wedded before the world was made, he was drawing on the Christian capital of the old ideas of immortality and sanctity. When he explained to his mistress in his garret the delicacy and dignity of cutting her throat and his own, and called it 'the world well lost for love', he was really appealing to the old tradition of the martyr and the ascetic, who lost the world to save his soul. He was not, in any very exact sense of the word, talking sense. He was not uttering purely rational remarks; certainly not remarks that our more rationalistic generation would call rational. Often, when he had done himself particularly well with champagne and old brandy, he would let the cat out of the bag rather badly by calling the blanchisseuse or the artist's model 'his bride in the sight of God'. 

Anyhow, he could not make the sort of appeals to deific faith or demoniac jealousy, which constituted the vigorous love poetry of the age of Hugo and Alfred de Musset, without implying an immortal significance in passion, which the modern realists refuse to see in mere appetite. He could not so praise love without also praising loyalty. He might not admit that there was a sacred bond between Guinevere and Arthur; but he could not write at all without assuming that there was a sacred bond between Guinevere and Lancelot. The later sex writers would refuse to admit that there is any sacred bond between anybody and anybody else. The truth is that this mystical feeling about the love of man and woman was treated so clumsily that it fell between two stools. When it was really medieval, it could be preserved for ever in a story like that of Dante and Beatrice. When it was really modern, it simply fell to pieces, into little decaying scraps rather like wriggling worms, the hundred little loves and lusts of the modern sex novel. But the Romantics of the nineteenth century held it up in a sort of indeterminate pre-eminence; a dizzy and toppling idolatry; trying to make it at once as sacred as they thought good and as free as they found convenient. They wanted to eat their wedding-cake and have it. They wanted to make their wild wedding sacred without making it secure. They did put woman upon a pedestal; but they did not look to see if it was a solid pedestal.

Now, oddly enough, it was the same with Liberty as with Love. It was the same with the democratic ideal of political freedom for all. And Democracy is being criticized just now for exactly the same reason that Romance is being criticized just now. It is that all the sense there ever was in either of them rested on a religious idea. The nineteenth century took away the religious idea and left a sense that rapidly turned into nonsense. All men are equal because God loves all equally; and nothing can compare with that equality. But in what other way are men equal? The vague Liberals of the nineteenth century cut away the divine ground from under Democracy, and Democracy was left to stand by itself. In other words, it is left to fall by itself. Jefferson said that men were given equal rights by their Creator. Ingersoll said they had no Creator, but had received equal rights from nowhere. Even in the democratic atmosphere of America, it began to dawn on a great many people that it is very difficult to prove that men ever received the equal rights at all. In short, the Republican theory will turn out to be another form of Romance; and will be classed with the illusion of the too idealistic lover, unless it can be reconnected with the positive beliefs from which it was originally borrowed. The Red Cap will follow the Red Waistcoat into the old clothes' shop, unless it can be made something more than a fashion, or dipped in that enduring dye that coloured the red roses of St. Dorothy or the red cross of St. George. 

Mr. Philip Carr recently published a picturesque and interesting sketch of the French Romantics in the great period of Romanticism. It appeared at an appropriate time—at about the time when we could fairly say that artistic Paris, in that sense, had at last ceased to be gossip and had begun to be history. The admirable 'Beachcomber', in the Daily Express, has often made fun of the fussy and confused 'reminiscences' of men who claim to have lived the Bohemian life of the French capital; exulting in an orgy of anarchy and anachronism; and describing how he drank absinthe with Zola and Chateaubriand or shared a garret with Gauguin and Montalembert. But time sets a limit even to anachronism; it would hardly do for the most venerable journalist, writing 'Ninety-eight Years in Fleet Street'to claim to have met Milton as well as Keats; and even Mr. Frank Harris did not profess to have been the intimate friend of Swift as well as Carlyle. We are now far enough away from the French Romantics of the nineteenth century to judge them as we should the Pliade in the sixteenth century. In both cases, of course, a good many English people will entirely misjudge them and absurdly underrate them; many through a cultural, educational or acquired characteristic: a complete ignorance of French; many others by a profound, primitive, natural gift: a complete ignorance of poetry. It would be very easy to make English jokes about the French Romantics; the sort of jokes that might be made about them in Punch. There is even some excuse for a superficial reader, accustomed to such superficial satire, if he gains such a general impression. I mean the impression that the great geniuses of nineteenth-century Paris were all marked by three characteristics: that they all went about in crowds, frequently riotous crowds; that they each of them complained in verse that they were dwelling in a desert of unbearable loneliness; and that each of them had to be (or professed to be), for however short a period, in love with George Sand. But the weakness of all such superior Victorian patronage is that the Romantic often lived a life that was more real, not to say realistic, in its tests and risks and even privations, than the life of the patronizing Victorian. The Victorian humorist would not have liked to starve in a garret because he was a Republican or a Royalist; he would not have liked to face a Paris mob even, when it was out to kill, for a fine point of literary criticism; he certainly would not have liked to be challenged to a duel by all the dreamy, ineffective aesthetes in Paris; and eveft having a love affair with George Sand, though to some not much more alluring than having a heart-to-heart talk with the rhinoceros at the Zoo, was certainly almost as dangerous. In truth it was the jolly humorous Victorian, of the type of Thackeray or Trollope, who was the Romantic. It was he who lived in a world of his own; in a happy land that was a happy dreamland; in that prosperous and peaceful England that was a day-dream and had its day. The French Romantics made fools of themselves in all sorts of ways, as very clever men always do. But they were much nearer to the taste of certain terrible things: death and desperate faith and the fury of the poor and abstract certitudes and even despair. They were dramatic, and even melodramatic, in their gestures; but, after all, they were not on a stage. They lived through real revolutions, and not unreal reforms; they lived within striking distance of the duellist's pistol and the rioter's pike. They followed women or visions perhaps not worth dying for; but some of them might really have died. Because their cries were sometimes childish, people forget that the burnt child dreads the fire only when it is a real fire; and the Victorian nursery always had an efficient fireguard.

The true intellectual interest of Romanticism, now that it has been so completely replaced by Realism, is that everybody has completely forgotten how a very recent rebellion of the young produced the first quite as much as the second. It is amusing to find the young writers of to-day looking back disdainfully on what they consider old-fashioned 'sentiment' or 'sentimentalism' or 'sensibility' 'or putting woman on a pedestal' or 'romantic illusions about love'—all apparently under the impression that these are very venerable moral traditions of mankind that no man has ever dared to disturb till now. The truth is that all this sentiment is still a new thing; and only yesterday was the new thing. The romance of drooping love-locks or flowing ringlets, the fainting and the feminine sensibility, the pressed flowers and the pink albums, the Books of Beauty and the Gems of Loveliness only yesterday, all these things were not only Youth but the Revolt of Youth. Only yesterday all these things were not only the fashion; they were even the rebellion against fashion; in the sense of the rebellion against convention. Only yesterday all these were the freaks of that Freedom by which the rising generation shocked its elders. Only yesterday all these things were To-morrow. 

Any one who will consider the facts will see that this is no exaggeration. The albums and the keepsakes were inscribed with endless quotations from Byron; because Byron had been a revolutionist. We cannot now realize the wild novelty, nay, crudity, of the young lady who insisted on copying out Byron, instead of copying out Cowper. We cannot feel the fact that she was gate-crashing; that she was going the pace; that she was running around with a pretty hot crowd; but it was the fact. And the moral of it is that nothing grows old so quickly as what is new. The real comment upon the simpering smile of the lady with the ringlets, as revealed reclining with mandolin and bulbul, in the Book of Beauty, is to send her portrait to the most modern of all modern girls, engaged in detaching her mouth from her face by the latest optical illusion of lip-stick, with the old inscription: 'Get you to my lady's chamber; and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come.'

More ironic than the grinning skull, more dissolvent than dust and ashes, slower and more certain in its vengeance than mere death, this destiny has decreed that The Young of every generation shall not die, but shall live on as specimens of The Old; and especially as types of the old-fashioned. Each generation of rebels in turn is remembered by the next, not as the pioneers who began the march, or started to break away from the old conventions; but as the old convention from which only the very latest rebels have dared to break away. The moral seems to be that there may be a reward for rebels in heaven, if the Bright Young Things are looking in that direction; but there is precious little reward on earth.

~G.K. Chesterton: All I Survey, XXXII.