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Romanticism: Kaufman, Peckham, And Perkins

The term romanticism has meant a number of different things to scholars and academics throughout the years. Ironically, the degree of variation in its connotations and denotations is one of the only stable aspects of its use since this term was initially employed. This fact is perhaps best evinced in evaluating 20th century literature on the subject. Despite the fact that over a century had elapsed since the heyday of the period in Occidental literature that the term characterized, scholars still devoted copious amounts of erudition to deconstructing what the term actually meant. As is expected, the thoughts and sentiments of the subject evolved over the course of the 20th century as analysis of Paul Kaufman's "Defining Romanticism: A Survey and a Program" in 1925, Morse Peckham's "Toward a Theory of Romanticism" in 1951 and David Perkins' "The Construction of "The Romantic Movement" as a Literary Classification" in 1990. Whereas initially scholars at the outset of the century simply focused on detailing what factors were apposite for defining the term, at it conclusion there appears a much firmer explication of it and one which is accorded through the scholarship of this entire epoch.

It is pivotal to note that even at the outset of the 20th century, some of the more salient attributes of this term and the time period it invokes were known. Kaufman spends an almost inordinate amount of time discussing various aspects of semantics and information that any scholar would need to attempt to give an appropriate definition of the term. Still, it is important to note that he realized the basic characteristics of this period involved a surfeit of feeling in the writing of this age, and of spirit as well (194). Perhaps one of the most critical defining points of his essay, however, (which was certainly propagated through the years and influenced erudition on the subject at the end of the 20th century) was the fact that it is vital to consider other factors other than the mere literature that was produced during this time period. The author notes that scholars should broaden their "inquiry into the nature of the phenomena called romantic in other arts" (203). This concept is the premise for the notion that it is not only germane to examine the romantic in terms of arts, but of other influential factors in a zeitgeist such as politics and history, as well. Perkins acknowledges this idea in the subsequent quotation:

"There must be a resemblance," says Shelley…between all writers of a particular age. They cannot escape from subjection to a common influence which arises out of an infinite combination of circumstances belonging to the times in which they live" (132).

In noting this similarity of ideas between Kaufman and Perkins it is critical to observe that the former's acknowledgement of shared, external facets of life that influenced the art and literature of a time period was made near the beginning of the 20th century. The latter's reiteration of this point occurred near the end of the century. Moreover, Perkins' work actually extends upon that of Kaufman in the respect that it provides a theory of a tangible common life event that proved influential to the development of Romanticism and its definition. In particular, the author has pinpointed the French Revolution as a seminal event in the history of Romanticism -- and indeed in periodization in general. Perkins ascribes to the notion that prior to this Revolution there actually was no attempt to distinguish different ages and epochs from one another (129). The only notable exception, of course, was broad distinctions such as the Middle Ages.

What is more notable about this conception of Perkins' which is traceable through the history of 20th century erudition on the notion of Romanticism is the immense importance he imputes to the French Revolution and its impact on the literature written in its wake. The novelty of that Revolution is largely based on the fact that centuries and perhaps even millennia old modes of government -- perhaps the principle civilizing factor of society -- were overturned as feudalism and monarchies gave way to more democratic measures. The effect that this event produced on the thoughts and sentiments of authors was no less radical. Perkins notes that: "the "spirit of the age" was always described as impatient of authority and limits, and this spirit was said to animate literature" (134). Furthermore, this animating spirit of this time period that is referred to as Romanticism was characterized by "an effectual demand for more profound speculation, and more serious emotion than was dealt in by the writers of the former century" (134). It is pivotal to realize that this same description of Romanticism as an epoch in which literature was characterized by a surplus of spirit and emotion was also alluded to by Kaufman at the outset of the century (and at the outset of this essay). Hence, the reader is able to observe the fact that ideas initiated at the beginning of the 20th century about this period were extend and exemplified by authors at the end of the century.

It is not surprising then, that these same concepts are also found at the midway point of the 20th century. Peckham not only identifies the preoccupation with nature and "the exotic" (6) that characterizes this time period, but also gives due diligence to the effect of the overarching sentiments and thoughts of the age that helped to shape this literary movement as well. He states that there "may be a connection between the revolution in ideas and the arts and the more or less contemporary revolutions in other fields of human activities" (5). He also admits that for the period known as Romanticism, that the term has come to denote that this "a revolution of art and ideas is often considered to be only an expression of a general redirection of European life which included also a political revolution" (5), which is as close to coming to identifying this period as a reactionary movement to the French Revolution without naming this particular revolution as is possible. But what is truly noteworthy about Peckam's essay is that although he implies the French Revolution was a defining point for Romanticism, the focus of his essay is closer to that of Kaufman, rather than of Perkins. Kaufman merely mentioned that it was necessary to consider other aspects of life and art outside of literature to understand this literary movement. Peckham echoes this sentiment by referencing the myriad other facets of art and society associated with Romanticism and which may have influenced it (5).

Thus, the progression of the scholarship relating to defining Romanticism is well understood. It initially began with a decision to consider additional aspects of life aside from literature that asserted influence on it; in the middle of the century those aspects of life included politics and their historical significance; at the end of the century this conception was refined into a reactionary movement against the French Revolution. Still, there is a greater degree of insight found in Kaufman's essay other than simply acknowledging that other areas of living informed the period known as Romanticism. The author is actually attempting to develop a methodology for coming up with a concrete definition of the term and that of which it is indicative. As such, his article includes a survey of the relevant factors one must ponder with due diligence to define romanticism -- his belief that other facets of art outside of literature could inform this process was part of the survey. His program involves identifying some of the key problems for defining Romanticism that existed at the time of his writing. These involved semantic complications associated with the noun and adverbial form of the term Romanticism and romantic, respectively (198). The crux of his program, however, is outlined in the subsequent quotation and involves "analyzing the different applications of the "romantic" to the different fields so described, such as the aesthetic, the psychological, the ethical, the social" (196).

In summary, the progression of the definition and scholarly thought considering the meaning of the term Romanticism morphed throughout the 20th century. At the outset of this century authors were skeptical as to any uniformity of definition, and sought to list the relevant attributes to consider to even begin approaching this task. This included, most eminently, not only considering literature but other aspects of life. Towards the middle of this century, analysis of the other aspects of life began to yield results, and included "revolutionary" (Peckham 7) ideas and a conception of life that was at variance with what came before it. Towards the end of the century the source of that revolution was sufficiently elucidated, the French Revolution, which helped spawn not only the beginning of periodization but also the zeitgeist of Romanticism. Romanticism, therefore, was a literary movement based on a revolt of pre-existing ideas of literature and which focused on feeling, nature, and a degree… [END OF PREVIEW]

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