Are we post-Romantics in our definition of literature?
I would like to pretend I’m from the upper class and be a snob and, sitting in the library (like the image to the right grabbed from Raby Castle), say: “No, that’s not how we look at literature. Literary texts, for us, are only those that belong to what we call the Greats.” Because, as Terry Eagleton says in “The Rise of English” (Chap. 2 of Literary Theory: An Introduction): “[t]he criteria of what counted as literature [in 18th-century England] … were frankly ideological: writing which embodied the values and ‘tastes’ of a particular social class qualified as literature, whereas a street ballad, a popular romance and perhaps even the drama did not” (17).
Every time I sit down to write a poem, however, I have to admit that my idea of literature is one “of ‘felt experience,’ ‘personal response’ or ‘imaginative uniqueness'” (18). And that makes me a post-Romantic, really.
But this idea of literature only gained prominence in the 19th century, “[w]ith the need to incorporate the increasingly powerful but spiritually rather raw middle classes into unity with the ruling aristocracy, to diffuse polite social manners, habits of ‘correct’ taste and common cultural standards” (17). This concept of literature required “a narrowing of the category … to so-called ‘creative’ or ‘imaginative’ work” (18). This definition of literature as “imaginative” carried with it an ambiguity suggestive of this attitude: it has a resonance of the descriptive term ‘imaginary,’ meaning ‘literally untrue,’ but also an evaluative term, meaning ‘visionary’ or ‘inventive'” (18).
Developed sometime around the revolutionary period in America and France and the rise of an industrial capitalist England, the definition of literature as “visionary” took on an added meaning as “a whole alternative ideology, and the ‘imagination’ itself … becomes a political force” (20) against the “crassly philistine Utilitarianism [that was] rapidly becoming the dominant ideology of the industrial middle class, fetishizing fact, reducing human relations to market exchanges and dismissing art as unprofitable ornamentation” (19). And literature’s task was “to transform society in the name of those energies and values which art embodies” (20).
But art and literature was losing the battle against the commodification of everything in society. It is no wonder that “imaginative” writing would seek refuge in the new aesthetic, removed from the turmoil of the everyday, and safe in its art-for-art’s sake ivory tower.
And that’s where we, creative writers and literary scholars, sometimes find ourselves locked up. As a defense mechanism, we turn our noses up at the world that moves on. Oblivious of our presence.
But that’s only one side of our post-Romantic selves …