chapter
Introduction
Pages 42

Romanticism resists being defined as a period or a set of qualities that can be comfortably ascribed to others and assigned to the historical past. There are several reasons why this is so. One is that major historical changes of the Romantic period still determine basic conditions of our lives: the invention of democracy, the invention of revolution, and the emergence of a reading public. Another reason is one this 'period' perhaps shares with any other: the permanent difficulty of historical interpretation, of knowing in what ways one's interpretive procedures determine one's results or may be determined by one's object, in what respect current assumptions project themselves onto the past or in fact arise from it. In interpreting Romanticism this difficulty is particularly acute. For in the history of 'literature' (a Romantic institution) as in the history of politics, Romanticism is our past: 'we carry it within ourselves as the experience of an act in which, up to a certain point, we ourselves have participated'. 1 What are still the most widely current assumptions about literature - such as the idea of 'organic form' and the inseparability of form and content, and the conception of good poetry as the fusion of thought and feeling - derive, critics maintain, from Romantic texts. 'The development of literary theory in the lifetime of Coleridge,' M.H. Abrams begins The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition, 'was to a surprising extent the making of the modern critical mind'.2 Much evidence suggests that this is true. But the very hypothesis sets up a specular or mirroring relation between Romanticism and the present that one cannot be sure of controlling through its conversion into a genetic narrative or history (as in Abrams's opening sentence). The possibility clearly exists that we project onto the Romantics concepts and attitudes that are central in our interpretation but superficial or tangential in their texts.