British Romantic literary theory

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As a companion to British Romantic poetry, many of the British Romantics wrote critical works devoted to theories of language and belief surrounding poetry and theatre. This page provides short summaries of various critical beliefs organized based on the time that the various writers' theories were most influential. It serves as a quick reference for students trying to understand the British Romantics' beliefs on poetics and theatre.

Early Romantic theory[edit]

Robert Southey[edit]

Friend of Coleridge that planned to put together a new society with him. Wrote many pieces dedicated to nature and politics, and believed that the ends were the most important.

Charles Lamb[edit]

On Shakespeare, Lamb, like Hazlitt, believed that Shakespeare was better read than acted. He believed that the relationship between writers and readers was like a contract, and that there needs to be feelings of mutual respect for it to work. The writer cannot insult the reader with lectures that force an interpretation. Bare narrative was the best, which was present in works like Robinson Crusoe or the Vicar of Wakefield. Those like Stanley Fish or Iser took up this idea in the 20th century.

In discussing Hogarth, Lamb argues that the reader's mind is important in determining how they interpret the works. He separates out the superficial audience with an audience that looks at a work in depth. A great work is one that the audience and artist are able to meet in a center spot, whereas lesser works attempt to merely give the audience what the artist wants. Lamb believed that Shakespeare was able to do a great job by usually understating his meaning.

In the essay "Barrenness of the Imaginative Faculty in the Productions of Modern Art", Lamb divides poetic and pictorial art with pictorial emphasizing exterior without depth whereas the poet is able to draw out inner characteristics. Images of Shakespeare, in particular, focus on physical and not mental traits. In the essay "On the Tragedies of Shakespeare", Lamb emphasizes the intellectual aspect of characters. The theatre versions take away from the audience's ability to understand the emotions and psychology of the characters. The actors should not matter in any way, and that they cannot truly bring out the characters. Reading the plays allowed an audience to take their time and slowly absorb the action, whereas the stage removes that ability. The imagination was key to art, and it could not be harnessed in viewing the works.

Later Romantic theory[edit]

William Hazlitt[edit]

He agrees mostly with Lamb about the stage and imagination. However, he also emphasizes that there is a problem with the imagination - individuals tend to glorify things beyond what their place. In particular, political figures, like Napoleon, are almost worshipped. In order to counter that, Hazlitt suggests that the preachy aspects of poetry should be removed. Poetry cannot help mankind, but only cause them to worship the wrong things in the wrong manner.

Leigh Hunt[edit]

Served as a critic for the News. Believed that criticism should be objective, which was new in the business. Most reviews before served as advertising for plays. He believed that critics shouldn't befriend the actors and spend time with them. He especially attacked Kemble for his performances and manner in speaking Shakespeare. He was attacked by the theatre for it, but seen as a great critic. This allowed him to publish his reviews in a collection - Critical Essays on the Performers of the London Theatre. The appendix contained a series of rules for critics to follow.