Conflicting Interpretations of Romanticism

 Originally Appeared in: Contexts and Comparisons: A Student Guide to the Great Works Courses | Published: 1991

Recent criticism has developed various interpretations of Romanticism. The conflict among these interpretations suggests that contemporary culture is still coming to terms with its relation to the Romantics. These conflicts also, of course, reflect the differing suppositions and preoccupations of the current intellectual scene. To help clarify your own reading of Romanticism, you should have an overview of the major controversies and interpretations. Each distinctive trend in the current approaches to Romanticism poses a particular general question and then answers it in a unique way. In other words, the question critics choose to address has just as much impact as the way they choose to answer it.

The general questions that shape today’s discussions of Romanticism can be roughly divided into three major controversies: (1) The first looks at the theme of mind and nature in order to examine how the value the Romantics placed on imagination affected the composition of their poems. (2) The second transforms the first into a question about poetic language—simile, metaphor, personification, and so on—and seeks to determine whether the Romantics experienced writing as a reliable means or a difficult obstacle to realizing the values they sought. (3) The third focuses on the role of writing in society and evaluates the social commitments and political values of Romantic literature. The following discussions illustrate how each of these controversies triggers a debate between two main opposing positions. Looked at in this way, there are six basic interpretations of Romanticism….

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