Modernist Classicism

'I want to maintain that after a hundred years of romanticism, we are in for a classical revival', declared Hulme (1994: 59). In the last chapter we saw that Pound, H.D. and Aldington looked to the Greek and Roman classics as one of several models for imagism. In this sense, an affinity with classicism was built into the imagist strand of modernist poetry from its beginning. But Eliot and Hulme use 'classicism' with a somewhat different force. When they use the term, they are not referring to the direct influence of Greek and Roman authors; rather, they are alluding to a set of politicized characteristics, summarized by Eliot as 'form and restraint in art, discipline and authority in religion, centralization in government' (Schuchard 1999: 27).

While the characteristics Eliot lists were loosely associated with ancient Greece and Rome, this particular definition of classicism has a specifically late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century resonance. The clearest account of modernist classicism is Hulme's lecture-essay 'Romanticism and Classicism' (written c. 1911—1912). For Hulme, classicism and romanticism are essentially opposed beliefs about human nature: the romantic, he says, believes in the infinite potential of the individual and thinks that laws and rules inhibit and distort the individual's innate goodness. The classicist, on the other hand, believes that man is a limited being who requires organization and restraint in order to achieve anything of any value (1994: 61). Hulme declares himself in favour of the Church, not simply because it provides rules to live by, but because its doctrine of original sin corresponds to the classicist's view that man is naturally sinful, not naturally good. In fact, Hulme sees romanticism as the misdirection of religious impulses into the human sphere: instead of believing in God, the romanticist turns man into a god. In typically pithy style, he calls romanticism 'spilt religion' (1994: 62).

Romanticism. Movement across the arts, usually defined as stretching from the late eighteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century, though aestheticism is often understood as a late version of romanticism. Romanticism emphasizes the value of the individual over the collective and therefore privileges individual subjectivity, imagination, emotion and spontaneity over objectivity, reason, the intellect and order. The movement sees the emergence of the cult of the artist and artistic originality, and the aim of art becomes identified with the expression of the artist's emotion, rather than conformation to agreed standards of beauty. In English literature, the romantic movement includes Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), William Wordsworth (1770-1850), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), Lord Byron (1788-1824), Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) and John Keats (1795-1821).

But what does this mean for poetry? Hulme has much to say about the merits of classical over romantic verse and he also gives a confident list of those writers he assigns to each camp: the classicists are Horace, the Elizabethans and the Augustans (he mentions Alexander Pope in particular), the romantics are Alphonse de Lamartine, Victor Hugo, 'parts of Keats', Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Swinburne. Hulme argues that the style and vocabulary of poetry is determined by romantic or classical allegiance: the romantic writes of the infinite because he thinks of man as unlimited, 'you might say if you wished that the whole of the romantic attitude seems to crystallize in verse round metaphors of flight' (1994: 62). This Hulme connects to what he sees as romanticism's high rhetorical pitch, and he contrasts it with two lines from Shakespeare's late play Cymbeline: 'Golden lads and girls all must / Like chimney sweepers come to dust'. Shakespeare, according to Hulme, is a classicist and the evidence is his use of 'lads'; a romantic, Hulme remarks, would have written 'golden youth' to elevate the verse (1994: 63). Hulme defines classicist verse, therefore, as more reserved than the romantic, because the classicist never forgets the limits of man. Hence Shakespeare's 'golden lads' may be golden, but they return to the earth, limited by their mortality.

Although the essay is mainly about poetry, Hulme in fact begins with a statement of politics. Revealing an unappealing taste for violence, he tells his audience about a brawl at a Paris theatre the previous year, when some audience members objected to a lecturer's unfavourable remarks about the seventeenth-century French dramatist, Jean Racine. Hulme, it turns out, approves of the brawlers: 'these people interrupted because the classical ideal is a living thing to them and Racine is the great classic. That is what I call a real vital interest in literature' (1994: 60). The brawl he describes had been orchestrated by the Camelots du Roi, a group known for its violent acts on behalf of the Action Française, a nationalist and royalist movement on the extreme right of the French political spectrum, and the impetus for Hulme's and Eliot's classicism. Hulme prefaces 'Romanticism and Classicism' by confirming that he uses the terms in a precise sense, the sense used by 'the group of polemical writers who make most use of them at the present day, and have almost succeeded in making them political catchwords. I mean Maurras, Lasserre and all the group connected with L'Action Française' (1994: 60).

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