Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, January 19, 2012


From Classic to Romantic: Premises of Taste in Eighteenth Century England
by Walter Jackson Bate
Harper Torchbooks
originally published 1946
this edition 1961

   What's amazing about this particular volume is how I acquired it.  You see, I went to the once monthly San Diego Public Library book sale at their location in San Carlos.  All the action at these sales takes place in the first 5-15 minutes of the sale, so the rule is either get there at the start or forget about it.  The way the sale is organized, they have fiction in front and then non-fiction spread out over two rooms in back.  I made my way to the Classics section- not immediately, but within the first 10 minutes.  There, it looks like they had an English teacher/student's collection of books on 18th century Aesthetics/Poetry.  I went easy of the Poetry stuff, but the books on Aesthetics were can't miss classics- like this GEM of a book- From Classic to Romantic: Premises of Taste in Eighteenth Century England by Walter Jackson Bate.

  From Classic to Romantic is typical of books about Aesthetics written at a high level BEFORE the 60s: Accurate as far as they go, but oblivious to the impending 60s revival of Romanticism inside and outside the university.  I think it's pretty amazing that Harper saw fit to publish, essentially, a mass market paperback of this title in 1961- shows you how awesome 1961 was, for starters- that people were ordering this paperback from Harper Torchbooks. From Classic to Romantic is in perfect condition, as if it had sat on a book shelf for someone's entire life- unread.  Condition is always a wild card when you are buying books on Amazon, and the library sale is clearly superior in that regard.

  Because from Classic to Romantic is so unpopular on Amazon (Sales rank in two millions'), I doubt I ever would have found it outside of a book store/book sale. I guarantee you 100% I would have bought this title at a used book store for much more then the 50 cents I paid for it.

   Bate accomplishes what the title promises: explains the premises of "taste" in eighteenth century England with reference to main bodies of thought: Classicism and Romanticism.   One of Bate's main points is that certain aspects of Classicism effectively paved the way for Romantic thought, but that the two school maintained their own disciples, with proponents of Romanticism emerging in the mid to late 18th century, and the proponents of Classicism emerging two to three generations before, as well as co-existing.

  Much of what is useful to a modern reader in From Classic to Romantic is Bates lucid explanation of the fundamentals of classical aesthetic theory circa early 18th century England.  These are sources that are foreign to the modern reader- most of the books that Bate references are close to impossible to understand for a modern examiner, so it's almost like he's an interpreter of these materials.

  I wanted to identify some of the statements Bate makes about principles of classic aesthetics, circa early 18th century England:

   The most pervasive single tendency of almost all classicism is, "the idealization of the familiar."  The achievement of this goal may utilize various means; but they are in all cases directly related to man, and are based upon man's common intellectual, aesthetic and moral experience and interest."
   Classical aesthetic values are unity, simplicity and the natural and harmonious adaptation of parts to the whole- founded on a confidence in truth and the grandeur of ordered generality.
   The primary rule of Classical aesthetics is  Decorum.  Decorum is defined by Aristotle as "preservation and ennobling of the type."
   Classical Art seeks to declare the unity, order and law that you find in the interweaving of past, present, and future.
  A primary interest to proponents of late 18th century Classicism was the nature of the reasoning and "methodizing" faculty itself...which culminated... an argumentative basis for Romanticism by the middle of the 18th century.

     The rest of the book is devoted to demonstrating this transition from Classicism to Romanticism via the tools provided by individual writers like Samuel Johnson and Joshua Reynolds- who share their own chapter. One of the main phenomenons generated by the transition from Classic to Romantic thought was the growth of "sympathy" "sentiment" and empathy among writers and intellectuals.   The ability to "feel" was something that initially distinguished forward thinking Romanticists from stuffy old Classicists, but this difference collapsed from the wide spread adoption of the trend outside the originating intellectual class- much the same way a "cool" band will become popular and lose it's original fans- so suffered the role of sympathy/sentiment in 18th century English literary society.

  At 99 cents on Amazon, From Classic to Romantic is a steal- and a must read for Artists and Critics alike.

No comments:

Blog Archive