PRINT January 1980



SOME CRITICS FIND CLASSICISM in a grain of sand and Romanticism in a wildflower. In doing his journalistic best to report diligently on so-called Romantic phenomena, Hugh Honour creates a highly wrought textbook for students, but one that is not going to convince scholars of anything.1

In the first half of this century, as Jacques Barzun reminds us in his Classic, Romantic, and Modern (1961), there was a lashing out against Romanticism, seen as neo-primitivistic and nationalistic. Then there was an attempt, by Barzun and others, to understand and rehabilitate and vivify our sense of the Romantics as more than purveyors of “split religion.” And today we seem to have come to another crisis—the too easy acceptance of the word Romanticism itself and the encyclopedic overview.

There is something Polyannaish about this new view. Everything fits, even the contradictions; even the hallucinations are not too heated nor the dreams too disorienting. At Yale, transcendence seems to have replaced all other forms of thought. Napoleon and the Revolution become slightly tame, if colorful, toys. In this period, one that could be called again in Baudelaire’s phrase “the rococo of romanticism,” Honour emerges with a very skillful, very professional heaping up of quotations and plates.

There are terrible dangers in the summing up of any single period. Today, we are witnessing the horror of the word “Postmodernism.” We are distracted from distraction by bad abstractions. We use these abstractions as ways of priding ourselves on our novelty, but any intelligent sense of our precursors vitiates this arrogance. Styles do emerge, of course, in contradiction and even in chiaroscuro, but one must be very careful, too, in not simply taking a military attitude for or against any style. For example, Jacques Barzun, a tireless expounder of the virtues of Romanticism, rebukes modernism for tinny egoism, as if Alfred North Whitehead, Louis Kahn and Maurice Merleau-Ponty did not also exist as a rebuke to such a tinny and intemperate characterization.

One has an almost puritan ical abhorrence for the genre of Honour’s Romanticism: the encyclopedic overview in one volume is often a telescope offering every possibility so that one is as likely to be seeing a scratch on the lens as a star. Such an overview is sometimes perversely personal, as if one were to illustrate a chapter on poetry with examples drawn only from the world of trees. And yet it is also charming to watch a single intelligence attempt to construct a good story out of all this. The temptations to system exist, but the intelligence must resist such rigor for more diverse articulations. The biographer of a style must have more nightmares than Leon Edel, for a style has no single birth certificate, and no strenuous style has a simple coffin.

Hugh Honour has attempted to sum up the meanings of Romanticism in the visual arts. This task has merited some severe warnings in the past from scholars, and Honour himself seems to know most of the literature of this dismay. He cites, for example, Arthur O. Lovejoy, who once suggested that the term Romanticism had become fairly meaningless. Lovejoy went on to suggest that one should treat the term in a kind of psychiatric fashion and have it confess its history and the vagary of its more bizarre adventures as a name. On the other hand, Lovejoy decided there was indeed something like a Romantic period and it could be characterized, he felt, by certain ideas and their relations.

Interestingly enough, Honour seems most deficient in dealing with the three basic ideas that Lovejoy set down as the most characteristic of this epoch: the idea of the organism, the sense of struggle, and the theme of diversity. Of course, Lovejoy might have been the first to say these were only three topics in a world of new topics. But I do think Honour rather misses something when he underlines, for example, almost a Romantically infinite number of paintings, rather than drawing attention to the very theme of the infinite and the topic of diversity. Also, the theme of the organism might have helped his formal analyses, which are so often deficient: he might then have had some thematic way of dealing with new relations between parts and wholes.

What I admire in one of Lovejoy’s essays, written during World War II, is the way in which he is will ing to discover both the positive and negative poles of certain Romantic topics. Reading Honour’s volume, one would never suspect the possible dangers lurking in certain galaxies of ideas. Certainly, we have come a long way from the species of polemics that used to be hurled against the Romantics. Jacques Barzun and others have waged a war quite successfully to reaffirm our notion of the Romantics and to separate them from any easy marriage with contemporary horror. Still, Lovejoy was more than prescient in showing that an idea such as diversity could easily lead to fairly vigorous, even nationalist, forms of pride. He was also subtle in showing that the new sense of the whole could modulate to an idea of the individual as a nullity compared to the whole.

In Honour’s study, we find that the author constantly claims the French Revolution as the center of the romance of Romanticism. But one never feels that this political term is treated seriously enough and with the proper caution. The book proposes to be political by naming the Revolution, but then does little more than this naming: it is as if the painter Cy Twombly were to sum up 1789–1830 by scribbling “Napoleon” in red across the canvas. What one wants is something more like Abel Gance’s five-hour film Bonaparte and the Revolution (1971; revision of Napoleon, 1926), with its vivid handling of terror and the erotic life. (One might also learn more about fashion from a party scene in Gance with Madame Récamier and Josephine than from many plates in Honour.)

Let us remember, however, that what Honour tries to do is the nearly impossible work of the encyclopedic article transformed into a reader’s guide. He has already accomplished this kind of task in his nimble Neo-Classicism (1968), as well as a very well researched and sprightly Chinoiserie (1961) in which he had the difficulty of dealing with the European dream of Cathay. In this work he intends to “penetrate the cultural realities beneath the art-historical packaging and reveal the inner tension.” But it is perhaps the tensions that are most lacking here.

One wonders, too, about the perspective of such a book. Is it possible, for example, that Honour does not have a vigorous enough sense of the modern period to come at the Romantics with the necessary passion and dispassion? It is possible that this book goes flat because there is neither a polemical or practical edge nor philosophical solicitude. Without this anxiety and subtlety, scholarship itself begins to look like the meretricious cornucopia of a mediocre anthology. Sometimes one may learn even more from an acerbic anti-Romantic—say the late-Romantic Ezra Pound—than from some calm text enumerating the qualities of Wordsworth and Constable. At any rate, Romanticism is not always served well by its more stable allies.

It is to Honour’s credit that he does accept the subjectivity of his task; and he quotes Baudelaire to the effect that the period must be defined by feeling and not by subject. The connoisseur in Honour often mistakes this for an invitation to mere literary “impressionism” on the romantics—an interesting art-historical fate—but often he does actually attempt some kind of evaluation of this subjectivity itself.

The volume, nevertheless, is divided into topics: landscape, sculpture, the Middle Ages in revival, the past. Liberty, the artist, mysticism. While something is obviously gained by these topics, much is lost. The reader never has a clear sense of the historical complications of the period, except in a very tangled and mismanaged way. One understands that Time is not History, but Honour seems often to be aiming at the layman or student, and surely the student deserves a certain tact. While certain artists are looked at in a sustained and fervent manner—Turner, Constable, Blake, Géricault—no artist is looked at in a precise enough fashion or with psychological density. In this way, the book will never be able to supplant any work—such as Walter Friedlaender’s David to Delacroix (1930)—that focuses with some detail on complete careers. Honour might simply reply that that was not his form, but one does discover the disadvantages of collage in reading this vast series of snippets. While I have always dreamt of Walter Benjamin’s summa, a projected work dealing with the 19th century by juxtaposition and quotation, I now wonder.

At any rate, what we do have of Benjamin is a very good investigatory antidote to Honour’s study. Benjamin places the artist in the context of architecture, law, the streets, economics—the cultural reality, indeed—while Honour talks of such a project. The difference between such cultural investigation and what Honour does is like the difference between China and Cathay.

One gives Honour credit for his project, but not always for escaping clichés. “Old orthodoxies were shaken, old certainties were undermined.” On page 19 the world is a “constantly changing” one; on page 21 it is the cosmos that is “constantly changing.” Sometimes, the Romantics have gotten into his own style and produced such overwriting as: “The Cross in the Mountains demands and beggars description, calls for explanation yet defies analysis.“ By the way, I wish for all commentators on Caspar David Friedrich a little more analysis and less reverie. Too often this book reads like the exploits of the Romantics, an apotheosis without defeats, whereas Honour himself knows from one of his better quotations (from Louis Aragon) that what we are dealing with is ”but a man. Man. The tragic destiny of man. In the end there is only defeat." At any rate, we could have less of a tone of salon triumphs.

If much of the book suffers due to its constant black and white, the lack of color plates must be ascribed to our own almost revolutionary recession. Still, there is a pathos in a book that has color for its theme and, inside, a rather drab medley of sometimes almost illegible prints. A Romantic or English irony is that only William Blake, in love with linearity, is given the apotheosis of the colorful cover of the book.

Throughout the text Honour tries to import some sense of the poetry of the period. In this he is not very successful and not very original or searching. While Honour is very careful about Constable, he is rather negligent in his uses of Wordsworth and Keats. Hölderlin, perhaps the greatest elegiac analogue in poetry to much of the art, is named once and in passing, as if tooted at from a locomotive. It is exactly in this period that analogies between art and poetry, music and architecture, are most searchingly made, so that Honour’s little quotations are not sufficient. He speaks of the “idea” behind The Prelude, “and, indeed, all of Wordsworth’s poetry.” And indeed, poetry seems often simply an idea to Honour. Possibly the problem with the entire book is the way the paintings and poems are merely ransacked for ideas and are not analyzed as stable wholes and subtle structures. Ideas themselves are reduced to tags and are not seen as dynamic wholes and subtle configurations.

There are pleasures throughout Honour’s volume, and I would not want to forget them or be so impatient with his format as to overlook them. He has some very interesting observations on Turner and the sense of atmosphere as paint, and here he quotes William Hazlitt beautifully. But one feels like calling “But go on!” when he sketches the topic (Romantically!) with much intuition but not strenuously enough. On the other hand, he has a very good little essay on clouds, with plates by Adalbert Stifter, the Austrian painter and writer, and the wonderful précis of a Stifter story: “the hero of a short story gazing at warm coloured clouds from his window, suddenly overcome by the urge to ‘steal’ and preserve one of them, and devoting the rest of the day to atmospheric studies.” Honour does some enchanting research, moreover, when he dates the Arkansas Hot Springs (1832) and Yosemite National Parks (1864, 1872) in relation to the new taste for wilderness.

While Honour does not do justice to the change from “a mimetic to an expressive aesthetic,” something that M.H. Abrams has perhaps already done well enough and even magisterially, still the author is very good with sculpture. He has indeed done a great deal of work on Antonio Canova, whose biography he is preparing, and his text benefits from his strong affinity for sculpture. He makes some very shrewd comments concerning the Lion of Lucerne sculpture, 1819–21, by Bertel Thorvaldsen and shows it to be part of the new sense of landscape and, indeed, to be carved out of the actual ’scape itself. He speaks of this work as “physically aspiring to the condition of landscape painting.” Perhaps a more vital sensibility would compare this work to our contemporary earthworks, although that also might be a sentimentality.

Hugh Honour is correct in underlining the sense of the past in Romanticism, but he ends up with something more like a squib than an essay—not well organized, finally, and a little unclear, and certainly not adequate on the sense of what has been called “the burden of the past.” He really does not have a dialectical sense of the anxiety and joy in revivalism. His manner is not analytic and is often too sudden and unsolid for anything pretending to be a text for students. While there are interesting moments in the book—the use of Christopher Columbus and Don Quixote in painting and Romantic thought generally—he still fabricates a book more of anecdote than of investigation. The notes are more impressive and could lead one to the stronger literature on the Romantic arts.

Alfred North Whitehead has a beautiful chapter on “The Romantic Reaction” in his celebrated book Science and the Modern World (1925). I would question, however, his dictum that literature is concrete and the place to which one must go in order to consult the psyche of an age. Surely the visual arts were palpabilities closed to Whitehead’s sensibility. What Whitehead could contribute was his profound sense of the mechanistic philosophy of the 18th century and its implications. He understood fully the moral revulsions of Coleridge and Wordsworth in their tendency to use concrete natural detail as a rescue from a blindly running universe. Hugh Honour has very little sense of the science and philosophy of an age. Kant and Hegel are for our author a few arguments merely introduced under those names, as if the gentlemen in question were journalists or dandies with occasional insights. When one reads Whitehead’s small chapter, one reads a profound web of thoughts on the new organic model. When one reads Honour, with all attention to paintings and plates, one is lost in a maze of remarks. And remarks are not Romanticism. Likewise, Honour slights the cognitive struggle of the artists and thinkers he is dealing with in his volume. He does not seem to believe that art is a form of thinking. Of course, the Romantics did, and Schlegel explicitly called a poem a critique. The paintings of Blake are not simply “mysteries,” along the lines in which Honour portrays them: they are vital rebukes to what Whitehead called “the abstract materialism of science.”

Whitehead has one of those beautiful small summary sentences that functions as an autonomous organism: “The Romantic reaction was a protest on behalf of value” (Science and the Modern World, page 96). This sentence indicates, moreover, just what Hugh Honour leaves out. He somehow misses the abstract vigor of the cultural moment. While adept at underlining the humor, the sensuality, and even the pathos of the plot, he really does not exactly have a sense of the stakes involved. He is more like a historian of ornament than a historian of ideas. A student going through the book in question will have a sensation of a Mardi Gras of magnificent turns, even tergiversations. But never do we receive the sense that here, in what Eliot might have called an undissociated path, the mind of Europe itself repaired to a healing vision. Yet that last sentence is itself a possible sentimentalization for what Whitehead calls pithily a protest, a revolt. Which is exactly the Romantic Revolution that Honour avoids. In place of it, one finds plates and topics.

David Shapiro is a poet and an critic; his most recent books are John Ashbery (Columbia University Press) and a co-translation of the writings of Robert and Sonia Delaunay.


Hugh Honour, Romanticism (New York: Harper and Row), 1979.



1. In the New York Review of Books November 22, 1979, Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner lay out many of the reservations that I have made concerning this book. It is all the more surprising that their evaluation early on, and one likely to carry a sad authority—is that this is "the best book yet available (and perhaps ever written) on romanticism in the visual arts.” While the book is indeed a charming cadenza, it should not be raised to handbook status.