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Romance Two Lectures   By: (1861-1922)

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First Page:

LOUIS CLARK VANUXEM FOUNDATION

ROMANCE

TWO LECTURES BY

SIR WALTER RALEIGH

M.A., PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH LITERATURE IN THE UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD, FELLOW OF MERTON COLLEGE

LECTURES DELIVERED AT PRINCETON UNIVERSITY, MAY 4TH AND 6TH, 1915

PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS PRINCETON

LONDON: HUMPHREY MILFORD OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS

1916

Copyright, 1916, by PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS

Published October, 1916

THE ORIGIN OF ROMANCE

The period of English political history which falls between Pitt's acceptance of office as prime minister, in 1783, and the passing of the Reform Bill, in 1832, is a period rich in character and event. The same period of fifty years is one of the most crowded epochs of our national literature. In 1783 William Blake produced his Poetical Sketches , and George Crabbe published The Village . In 1832 Scott died, not many months after the death of Goethe. Between these two dates a great company of English writers produced a literature of immense bulk, and of almost endless diversity of character. Yet one dominant strain in that literature has commonly been allowed to give a name to the whole period, and it is often called the Age of the Romantic Revival.

We do not name other notable periods of our literature in this fashion. The name itself contains a theory, and so marks the rise of a new philosophical and aesthetic criticism. It attempts to describe as well as to name, and attaches significance not to kings, or great authors, but to the kind of writing which flourished conspicuously in that age. A less ambitious and much more secure name would have been the Age of George III; but this name has seldom been used, perhaps because the writers of his time who reverenced King George III were not very many in number. The danger of basing a name on a theory of literature is that the theory may very easily be superseded, or may prove to be inadequate, and then the name, having become immutable by the force of custom, is left standing, a monument of ancient error. The terminology of the sciences, which pretends to be exact and colourless, is always being reduced to emptiness by the progress of knowledge. The thing that struck the first observer is proved to be less important than he thought it. Scientific names, for all their air of learned universality, are merely fossilized impressions, stereotyped portraits of a single aspect. The decorous obscurity of the ancient languages is used to conceal an immense diversity of principle. Mammal, amphibian, coleoptera, dicotyledon, cryptogam, all these terms, which, if they were translated into the language of a peasant, would be seen to record very simple observations, yet do lend a kind of formal majesty to ignorance.

So it is with the vocabulary of literary criticism: the first use of a name, because the name was coined by someone who felt the need of it, is often striking and instructive; the impression is fresh and new. Then the freshness wears off it, and the name becomes an outworn print, a label that serves only to recall the memory of past travel. What was created for the needs of thought becomes a thrifty device, useful only to save thinking. The best way to restore the habit of thinking is to do away with the names. The word Romantic loses almost all its meaning and value when it is used to characterize whole periods of our literature. Landor and Crabbe belong to a Romantic era of poetry; Steele and Sterne wrote prose in an age which set before itself the Classic ideal. Yet there is hardly any distinctively Classical beauty in English verse which cannot be exemplified from the poetry of Landor and Crabbe; and there are not very many characteristics of Romantic prose which find no illustration in the writings of Steele and Sterne. Nevertheless, the very name of romance has wielded such a power in human affairs, and has so habitually impressed the human imagination, that time is not misspent in exhibiting its historical bearings... Continue reading book >>




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