Williams and the Romantic Turn

James Chandler (University of Chicago)


Raymond Williams was, in most of his writings, a narrative thinker. Examples of this tendency can be found all across his extensive oeuvre. One can see it in the very titles of two books, respectively, about drama and fiction: Drama: From Ibsen to Eliot (1952) (later revised as Drama from Ibsen to Brecht) and The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence (1970). One can see it as well in the organization of two of the big books he published around 1960: Culture and Society (1958) and The Long Revolution (1961). The individual chapters in both books may be essayistic in form, but they are also in both cases ordered in such a way as to trace a certain arc over time. Williams closes his introduction to The Long Revolution by noting that it completes a body of work that includes not only Culture and Society—for which it is clearly a companion volume—but also his first novel, Border Country (1960), which was published in the year between them. That a work of fiction could be placed in such close relationship with two critical books seems to reinforce a certain sense of narrative overlap among them.

The tendency to rely on narrative as a default mode continues to show up in Williams’s important works of the 1970s, though here narrative is complimented by something like a stratigraphic tendency, as mapped in Marxism and Literature (1974), with its much-cited schema of residual, dominant, and emergent cultural formations. Marxism and Literature itself, though presented as a work of theory, unfolds as its own kind of conceptual narrative, with problems and solutions in the history of Marxist literary analysis succeeding each other in linked intellectual episodes. The overall organization of Keywords, by contrast, is not narrative but explicitly and emphatically alphabetical. Nonetheless, in a kind of inversion of the pattern of Culture and Society and The Long Revolution, the individual entries in Keywords are themselves narratively structured, each telling the history of a particular semantic transformation. The Country and the City, with its announced emphasis on location over narrative, space over time, is a partial exception to this overall tendency, one to which I recur more than once in what follows.

It will be clear from these scattered examples that Williams is willing to start and stop his literary and cultural narratives at many different historical junctures and, more importantly for my purposes here, able to find pivotal moments in many times and places. Ibsen’s great plays of the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s certainly represent one kind of pivotal moment for Williams, but so does the year 1848, on which he focuses in The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence. In Modern Tragedy (1966), Williams declares that "since 1917, we have been living in a world of successful social revolutions" and that this particular date is "probably decisive in all our thinking," certainly in all our thinking about revolution and tragedy, his twin themes in that book (73). Taken as a whole, these narratives have so many pivot points, one might say, that the very idea of a pivot seems to lose its force and purchase.

This last point is not lost on Williams himself. Early on in The Country and the City, Williams waxes uncharacteristically playful in a little game about how to date the disappearance of "organic community," the supplanting of Gemeinschaft by Gesellschaft. Beginning close to home with Culture and Environment (1932), a book coauthored by his teacher at Cambridge F. R. Leavis, Williams notes that for Leavis "the change is very recent indeed" (Country 9). Yet this view, he goes on, was based on the books by one George Sturt, which were published between 1907 and 1923. And then, as Williams puts it, "what seemed like an escalator began to move," for Sturt located this break as early as the enclosures of 1861 (Country 9). Thomas Hardy’s novels pushed things back to the 1830s. And Richard Jefferies, writing in the 1870s, spoke of the decisive change as having occurred in the last half century. But then, with William Cobbett, John Clare, George Crabbe, and Oliver Goldsmith, Williams is soon pointing to a still earlier break in the mid-eighteenth century. Before long, he feels bound to reach all the way back to the pastoral nostalgia of, inter alia, Thomas More’s Utopia and William Langland’s Piers Plowman. It can, Williams shows, be a tricky business to pin down such pivotal moments in social and cultural narratives, especially when "literature" is the medium of evidence.


It is a commonplace that historians of all kinds, including literary historians, tend to think of the period they study as decisive for change over time. And students of the Romantic period tend, among all specialists, to make particularly bold claims for the age on which they focus. Evidence for these claims is not so hard to find or to marshal, and this evidence was not unknown to the writers of that moment. Powerful "causes unknown to former times," wrote Wordsworth in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, were radically altering culture and society, literature and taste, at the turn of the nineteenth century (Wordsworth 128). In addition to the major political revolutions in America and France, we must number among these causes the beginning of England’s Industrial Revolution—with its "accumulation of men in cities" and new forms of monotonous work (Wordsworth 128)—which Williams’s himself conveniently dates to roughly the life of William Blake (1757–1827). These are familiar facts and no one knows them better than Williams himself. No surprise then that, in several of his books at least, the decisive historical moment seems to fall around the turn of the nineteenth century.

This happens, for example, in both of the important early books with which I began: Culture and Society and The Long Revolution. Both books establish their points of departure in late eighteenth-century Britain. Both also devote early framing chapters to discussion of matters that most scholars of Romanticism have regarded as central to their understanding of that subject: "The Romantic Artist" in the case of Culture and Society and "The Creative Mind" in the case of The Long Revolution. When he focuses on such topics in this way, Williams shows himself capable of making claims about the decisive importance of the Romantic moment in literary and cultural history that would satisfy the field pride of the most aggressive Romanticists now working. Elsewhere, however, he is less inclined to do so. For example, in his survey of the social origins of British writers over several centuries of literary history, divided into 50-year segments, no particular pivot point is indicated with either of the Romantic generations (Long Revolution). It is not always clear when Romanticism matters for him and when it does not.

In what follows, then, I wish to address a couple of basic questions. What are the narrative contexts that lead Williams to cast the Romantic period in a decisive historical role? And, in a critical project that evolved as much as Williams’s did over time, is it possible to mark some changes in the way Williams accounts for the Romantic era and its movements? To put this second question another way, which involves an implicit narrative of my own, what happens to Romanticism as Williams’s frame of reference shifts from "culture and society" to "Marxism and literature"?

In retrospect, Williams’s early chapters on Romanticism in both Culture and Society and The Long Revolution depict the Romantic poets and their social-political circumstances in ways that we have perhaps come to take for granted but that were anything but commonplace in Romantic studies six decades ago. Prominent American work on the Romantic poets in the 1950s included Earl Wasserman’s close reading of Keats in The Finer Tone (1953) and Robert Langbaum’s study of the Romantic origins of the dramatic monologue in The Poetry of Experience (1957), both of which appeared before Culture and Society. David Ferry’s elegant appreciation of Wordsworth’s major lyrics in The Limits of Mortality (1959) and Harold Bloom’s Buberian interpretation of Shelley in Shelley’s Mythmaking (1959) appeared the year after Williams’s book. In England an exemplary work from this period is John Jones’s "history of Wordsworth’s imagination" in The Egotistical Sublime (1954). At Cambridge, Williams’s colleague Frank Kermode published Romantic Image (1957), which anticipates Culture and Society in that it offers a century-and-a-half narrative history that begins with the figure of "the artist in isolation," but this is about as far as the resemblance goes, for Kermode gives very little account of what the artist might be isolated from or against (1). When history is invoked in work of the postwar period of Romantic criticism, as it is in such major books as Walter Jackson Bate’s From Classic to Romantic (1946), Northrop Frye’s Fearful Symmetry (1947), or M. H. Abrams’s The Mirror and the Lamp (1953), it tends to be in the mode of the history of ideas (as in Frye’s invocation of Locke), or the history of aesthetics (as in Bate’s book), or both (as in Abrams’s).

It already matters to Williams’s handling of Romanticism in Culture and Society that "The Romantic Artist" is actually the second chapter in the book (30). Williams begins with the pairing of two actively political figures—Burke and Cobbett—best known for their writings on society more broadly. When Williams turns to the poets in his second chapter, his first move is to stress that "the poets from Blake and Wordsworth to Shelley and Keats" were among the generations of poets most "deeply interested and . . . involved in study and criticism of the society of their day" (Culture and Society 30). This observation leads him to puzzle over the "popular and general conception" of these same poets as "indifferent to the crude worldliness and materialism of politics and social affairs" (Culture and Society 30). For Williams in this book, the figure of the "Romantic Artist" is something to be seriously queried, if not quite ultimately debunked.

Williams was by no means the first commentator to emphasize the relationship of these poets to such political events as the French Revolution. But no one had explored, as he was to do in this book and its many sequels, their relation to the Industrial Revolution. Moreover, he emphasized that the transformations it effected—though "slower, wider, less observable" than those of the political revolution—were part of what he could come to call the lived experience of the time: ‘The changes that we receive as record were experienced, in these years, on the senses: hunger, suffering, conflict, dislocation; hope, energy, vision, dedication. The pattern of change was not background, as we may now be inclined to study it; it was, rather, the mould in which general experience was cast. (Culture and Society 31)’ If one didn’t know the case to be otherwise, one could almost imagine that the cultural moment of the early Industrial Revolution and its manifestations in the work of the Romantic poets constituted the inaugural context for Williams’s signature notion of a "structure of feeling."

I would like to thank my research assistant, Eric Powell, for his help in tracking down references and preparing this essay for publication. The concept of structures of feeling was first developed by Williams and Orrom in Preface to Film. For an extended account of the development of the concept throughout Williams’s oeuvre, see Chandler, “I. A. Richards and Raymond Williams” (344–52).

He would go on in this chapter to apply that notion to some of the various challenges to convention that writers made in this period: "changes in convention only occur when there are radical changes in the general structure of feeling" (Culture and Society 39). Out of such "first apprehensions of the essential significance of the Industrial Revolution," Williams’s argues, grew the roots of "the idea of culture" itself: accompanying the political, economic, and social changes came "a radical change also in ideas of art, of the artist, and of their place in society" (Culture and Society 31–32). The figure of the "Romantic Artist" was one encapsulation of these altered ideas.

Returning to some of these questions in The Long Revolution, Williams produces a proto-Keywords sort of history of the word "creative" in its various forms, which he says "carries a . . . consistently positive reference," more so than any other word in English (3). As we might expect, the pivotal moment for the history of this word comes in the Romantic period. And Williams lays out the history of the relationship between ordinary and artistic "seeing" in the following schema:

Man — natural seeing — Appearances.
Artist — exceptional seeing — Reality.
Man — natural seeing — Reality.5
Artist — exceptional seeing — Superior Reality.
Man — natural seeing — Reality.
Artist — exceptional seeing — Art.

(Long Revolution 16)

Williams refers neither to Bate’s From Classic to Romantic nor to Abrams’s The Mirror and the Lamp in these two books, but his account has corrective implications for each. Against Bate’s position, Williams argues that Classic and Romantic critical orientations are not so much opposed to each other as they are aligned against a third aesthetic: naturalism. Against Abrams’s position, Williams suggests that the relationship of imitation—the mirror—to creativity is a vexed one. In Culture and Society, the argument goes like this: ‘The tendency of Romanticism is towards . . . a claim which all good classical theory would have recognized: the claim that the artist’s business is to "read the open secret of the universe" . . . In fact, the doctrines of "the genius" (the autonomous creative artist) and of the "superior reality of art" (penetration to a sphere of universal truth) were in Romantic thinking two sides of the same claim. (Culture and Society 39)

See also James Naremore’s invocation of Williams’s point in a parallel discussion of how imitative and expressionist styles of film acting likewise amount to two sides of the same coin (59–60).

In The Long Revolution, Williams wrote that "the long and often bitter dialogue between these contrasted positions leads now, not to a taking of sides, but to a rejection of the premises which both parties share"—that is, that the genius has powers to penetrate to a higher reality (Long Revolution 19). What makes both corrections possible, even necessary, is Williams’s insistence on seeing the posture of the Romantic Artist as deriving, on the part of the writers who assumed it, from the felt realities of the Industrial Revolution. In this sense, Romanticism comes to be understood as just one way of responding to the transformations unfolding in the world’s first industrial nation in the decades straddling the turn of the nineteenth century. And that recognition in turn enables us to begin to answer the first question I posed about what sort of narrative might lead Williams to see Romanticism as a kind of pivot point. The answer would seem to be something like a history of the poet’s role in society.

Of course, both Culture and Society and The Long Revolution build accounts that run over a far longer period than the Romantic period, and, from the start, both address many more developments than the rubric of "Romanticism" could encompass. They also address a wide variety of genres beyond poetry: Culture and Society, for example, includes prose nonfiction, fiction, drama, and criticism among its objects of study, beginning as it does with Burke and Cobbett and ending with Richards and Leavis. As Williams’s thinking evolved beyond this pair of early books, indeed, two interrelated issues already incipient in them began more and more to occupy his attention. One is the broader question of genres, what he calls the "multiplicity of writing," especially what happened to genre discrimination around the turn of the nineteenth century, the historical starting point for Culture and Society and The Long Revolution. The other is the question of his involvement in the project of practical criticism. I will address each of these two questions in turn.


Late in his career, in Marxism and Literature, Williams revisited the Romantic period in a new key as part of his account of the "complex process" in which, over many decades, a system of fairly settled classical classification was subjected to a "bourgeois drawing and redrawing of all these lines" (147). This remapping of the genres, he argued, took place in keeping with tendencies to secularization, rationalization, and ultimately popularization, and the upshot of this process was the (for Williams) problematic distinction between "literary" and "non-literary" kinds of writing. He is careful to assert, however, that this distinction developed by stages. First there was the formation of certain disciplinary practices (in history, philosophy, and social and scientific description) in which "new kinds of distinction about forms and method of writing were radically connected with new kinds of distinction about intention." Thus in certain fields, older values such as "elevation" or "dignity" gave way to new values such as practicality, effectiveness, and accuracy (Marxism 147). For a time—and here Williams is probably thinking of, among others, the Scottish school of rhetoric and belles lettres associated with Adam Smith and Hugh Blair—the idea of "‘Literature’ as a body of ‘polite learning’" could still function to unite these increasingly diverse intentions (Marxism 147). But then came the real crisis, which Williams dates to the Romantic period.

"Under pressure," he writes, "especially in the late-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, this broke down" (Marxism 147). It is at this moment in the account that Williams produces a new conceptualization, now in the register of the sociology of literature, of the Romantic moment described at the start of Culture and Society and The Long Revolution: "‘Literature’ became either the conceded or the contemptuous alternative—the sphere of imagination or fancy, or of emotional substance and effect—or, at the insistence of its practitioners, the relatively removed but again ‘higher’ dimension—the creative as distinguished from the rational or the practical" (Marxism 147). We can note that the figure of the lyric poet as "Romantic Artist" is not privileged in this new formulation. On the contrary, when Williams goes on to spell out the implications of this shift in the new framework of Marxism and Literature, other genres and forms are emphasized: ‘In this complex interaction it is of course significant that the separated literature itself changed, in many of its immediate forms. In the "realist" novel, especially in its distinction from "romance," in the new drama (socially extended, secular and contemporary), and in the new special forms of biography and autobiography, many of the same secular, rational, or popular impulses changed particular forms of writing from the inside, or created new literary forms. (Marxism 147)’ From his late sociological perspective, we might say, Williams came to see that the era we call Romantic not only separated "literature" in its subsequent sense from other kinds of writing, but also developed further, fractal distinctions of the same kind within that category, such as the distinction between "romance" and "realism." To superimpose this new account of the turn of the nineteenth century on the account given in Culture and Society, then, is to see the foregrounded figure of the Romantic Poet-as-Artist less in portrait scale, with a historical landscape visible in the background, and more on the scale of a crowded historical painting populated with other moving and changing images.


The second issue that occupies Williams’s attention in the years beyond 1960, though in truth it is an issue that is with him from the start, is how to grapple with the legacy of Cambridge English (especially in the persons of I. A. Richards and F. R. Leavis, who are paired in a late chapter of Culture and Society), which had been so formative on his early work and thought. This difficult struggle with practical criticism also mattered to his relationship to Romanticism, especially to the once-foregrounded figure of the Romantic Poet. Toward the end of his career, Williams provided some late reflections on the role of practical criticism in his early work that illuminate the evolution of his thinking. Looking back from 1977, when he cooperated in a book-length series of interviews for New Left Review about his long career, Williams was especially self-critical about his approach to reading and interpretation in Culture and Society. In these interviews, he acknowledges that his approach to the writings he discusses was too immersive, too much given to reproducing the views of the authors he discusses and too little given to maintaining critical distance. He blamed this tendency on a habit of reading he had acquired at Cambridge under the aegis of "practical criticism." The fuller story of Williams’s long struggle with these two figures is too complicated to rehearse here.

See Chandler, “I. A. Richards and Raymond Williams.”

But in brief one might sum it up in three steps, even if it was not quite so clear-cut in the working out.

The first step is Williams’s determination that Leavis’s version of practical criticism was not only a less estimable affair than Richards’s, but also that it indeed represented an ideological capture of Richards’s project on two counts: where Richards’s practical criticism was grounded in rigorous theory, Leavis insisted on practice as opposed to theory, and Leavis debased the best elements of Richards’s program by substituting excerpts from novels in place of integral poetic texts. The second step is that, seeing this much, Williams was able to recognize the greatness of Richards’s reformation in criticism—especially its debunking of Oxbridge class privilege in the encounter with literature—but also to admit its damaging limitations. These limitations called for the third step: Williams would have to build a major critical alternative to practical criticism, something that he indeed labored at for years and that issued in his great books of the 1970s and 1980s.

But what does the question of practical criticism have to do with Romanticism? Not the least of the problems in Richards’s influential program, as Williams came to see, was precisely the focus on the integral lyric poem in its Romantic incarnation, which entailed a certain kind of reading practice closely associated with Wordsworth, whose experiments with sensibility of the 1790s closely anticipate those of Richards in the 1920s (in ways not difficult to demonstrate). It would be an exaggeration to say that Williams’s reading of the figure of the Romantic Artist (in Culture and Society) and the concomitant emergence of the "creative mind" (in The Long Revolution) was in either case an unequivocal endorsement. It is not an exaggeration, however, to say that he came to see these readings as too invested in a Wordsworthian lyric paradigm that mattered so much to Richards. The paradigm, for all its initial sense of empowerment and liberation from class prejudice, involved a subtle kind of "servility" to the formal technique of close reading the lyric poem, what Williams identified as an "active-passivity" in Richards’s Wordsworthian recourse to reading poetry as a remedy for cultural crisis.

The corrective to this narrow focus on immersive reading of integral lyrics, as Williams explained things in the late 1970s, was to shift the paradigmatic object of critical focus from poetry to drama. This was a move readily available to Williams, since drama was the field in which he started his academic work and to which he often returned in his writings. His dissertation was on Ibsen, and his appointment at Cambridge was actually as professor of drama. In addition to the books on drama that I have already mentioned, there are the two short books of 1954, Preface to Drama and Preface to Film (the latter coauthored with Michael Orrom). Since film, in Williams’s handing, is decidedly a particular species of dramatic presentation, both books are really about drama. And it is in Williams’s contribution to the latter book that he lays out an understanding of "drama-in-performance," which requires attention not just to the literary text, à la Richards, but also to the historical conventions of theatrical production. This focus in turn leads at this very early date to Williams’s first articulation of the concept—"structures of feeling"—on which he would famously ground the evolving critical edifice that should supplant that of Richards.

That edifice would indeed be a long time in the building, but an interesting moment in its construction comes with Modern Tragedy (1967), a book that Williams himself thought well of, though it has not enjoyed the same warmth of reception as many of his other books. The book is divided between a series of reflective essays in part one, "Tragic Ideas," and a series of critical essays on modern tragic works in part two, almost all of them from the twentieth century. It seeks overall to reframe the relationship between tragedy and politics, and it does so first by critiquing what Williams calls "the ordinary twentieth-century idea" of tragedy, or "the structure of tragedy in our own culture" (Modern Tragedy 62), and then by reading specific tragedies from the new perspective he opens up. The ordinary twentieth-century idea of tragedy includes components that are meant to be recognized as familiar: the separation of tragedy from accident, the focus on the destruction of the hero, the principle of irreversible or "irreparable" action, and the emphasis on absolute evil. One consequence of the hegemony of this ideology of tragedy, for Williams, is the false dichotomy Williams precisely seeks to redress: "Having separated earlier tragic systems from their actual societies, we can achieve a similar separation in our own time, and can take it for granted that modern tragedy can be discussed without reference to the deep social crisis, of war and revolution, through which we have all been living" (Modern Tragedy 62).

Modern Tragedy offers an account of how this particular separation widened over time. And as with some other narratives we have considered, the turn of the nineteenth century marks a crucial turn in a larger story. Anticipating the account of the multiplicity of writing in Marxism and Literature, the first essay in part two— “From Hero to Victim: The Making of Liberal Tragedy, to Ibsen and Miller” —goes back in time to consider a key transition (Modern Tragedy 87). This is the transition from what Williams calls "bourgeois tragedy" in decline—driven underground "by its own contradictions"—to the reemergence of its distinctive energy in the form of Romantic tragedy (Modern Tragedy 94). Williams is well aware that in making Romantic tragedy the focus of this particular narrative, he is not playing to the strengths of the movement. Romantic drama, certainly in Britain, is not on the whole a body of achievement to rival Romantic poetry. Yet it plays its part in the longer history of tragedy: "What is quite evident, through all the failures of Romantic drama, is a renewal and a renewed assertion of individual energy" (Modern Tragedy 94). More to the point for Williams, this new energy follows a course that helps to shape the (deeply problematic) modern idea of tragedy. Certain key themes of Romantic tragedy—the "impossibility of finding a home in the world, the condemnation to a guilty wandering, the dissolution of self and others in a desire that is beyond all relationships"—are what Williams calls "an important source of nearly all modern tragedy," especially (one might add) tragedy cast in an existentialist register as is the case for many of the plays Williams selects in the mid-twentieth century (Modern Tragedy 94–95).

How does the renewal of energy in Romantic drama issue in such dark consequences? Williams tells the story this way: ‘The desires of man are again intense and imperative; they reach out and test the universe itself. Society is identified as convention, and convention as the enemy of desire. The individual rebellion is humanist, at a conscious level. Prometheus and Faust, characteristically, are its heroes. But the condition of desire, unconsciously, is that it is always forbidden. What then happens is that the forms of desire become devious and often perverse, and what looks like revolt is more properly a desperate defiance of heaven and hell. There is a related preoccupation with remorse: deep, pervasive, and beyond all its nominal causes. For in Romantic tragedy man is guilty of the ultimate and nameless crime of being himself. (Modern Tragedy 94)’ Williams’s scope of reference in this passage is broadly European. He notes elsewhere that "Romanticism" in the sense that he uses it in this book is a European phenomenon, and of course Modern Tragedy as a whole deals with a range of tragic production from the ancient Athenians to Ionesco, Beckett, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams. For the decades straddling the turn of the nineteenth century, the expanded scope takes us well beyond the canon of Romanticism enumerated in Culture and Society—"from Blake and Wordsworth to Shelley and Keats"—to the European-identified Byron and indeed to Schiller and Goethe. And the concentration on drama, with its concomitant expansion of horizons, seems to shift focus importantly in Williams’s evolving understanding of Romanticism as such.

Indeed, Modern Tragedy has the advantage of being perhaps unique in Williams’s oeuvre for having a section that bears the heading "Romanticism." This section appears in the culminating chapter of part one, "Tragedy and Revolution," a conjunction of ideas, as he called them, that involved him in years of study. Within that chapter, this section appears third in a sequence that includes first "Liberalism" and then "Naturalism." The sequence merits some attention for the question of how Romanticism comes to be understood by Williams as an aspect of a larger set of pivotal and dialectically related ideological developments in that historical moment. It is the moment in which, in the wake of the French Revolution, "the idea of tragedy can be seen as in different ways a response to a culture in conscious change and movement" (Modern Tragedy 62). The French Revolution itself, on Williams’s account, had marked the moment when the medieval idea of rebellion was refashioned into the modern idea of revolution. This modern idea of revolution, he explains, had its origins in liberalism, which, over time, "eroded the conceptions of a permanent human nature and of a static social order with connections to a divine order" (Modern Tragedy 68). Out of liberalism’s "alternative conception of the possibility of human and social transformation," however, comes not only the new notion of revolution, but also an identification of the most important human values "not with the received order but with development, progress and change" (Modern Tragedy 68). For Williams, then, liberalism had the effect of putting the idea of revolution and the idea of tragedy at odds: "Revolution asserted the possibility of man altering his condition; tragedy showed its impossibility. . . . On that opposition, we are still trying to rest" (Modern Tragedy 68).

Liberalism, so understood by Williams, spawned two tragic modes that offer stark choices which are "essentially a matter of attitudes towards revolution" (Modern Tragedy 68). The first discussed is what he calls Naturalism, which seems a "true child of the liberal enlightenment, in which the traditional ideas of fate, an absolute order, a design beyond human powers, were replaced by a confidence in reason and in the possibility of a continually expanding capacity for explanation and control" (Modern Tragedy 69). But this child of enlightenment, declares Williams, "finally, is a bastard": ‘What became naturalism, and what distinguished it from the more important movement of realism, was a mechanical description of men as the creatures of their environment, which literature recorded as if man and thing were of the same nature. The tragedy of naturalism is the tragedy of passive suffering, and the suffering is passive because man can only endure and never really change his world. . . . This naturalism . . . began in liberalism but ends, ironically, as a grotesque version of the system originally challenged by liberalism . . . (Modern Tragedy 69)’ Naturalism and its debased form of tragedy are ultimately associated with the rapidly developing theories of political economy and "the theory of administered reform," society in this view amounting to nothing more than "an impersonal process, a machine with certain built-in properties" (Modern Tragedy 70). The naturalist response to liberalism gives us the "mystification" of what Williams calls "mechanical materialism" and more specifically "utilitarianism" (Modern Tragedy 71).

Romanticism is the name that Williams gives to the second of the two movements that "sought to express the values of liberalism" (Modern Tragedy 71). If utilitarianism, "the most common English form of mechanical materialism, had sought liberal values in the reform of civil society," Romanticism took a seemingly opposite tack, seeking "values in the development of the individual," though this led to a similarly ironic impasse. ‘In its early stages, Romanticism was profoundly liberating, but, partly because of the inadequacy of any corresponding social theory, and partly because of the consequent decline from individualism and subjectivism, it ended by denying its own deepest impulses, and even reversing them. Almost all our revolutionary language in fact comes from the Romantics, and this has been a real hindrance as well as an incidental embarrassment. Romanticism is the most important expression in modern literature of the first impulse of revolution: a new and absolute image of man. Characteristically, it relates this transcendence to an ideal world and an ideal human society; it is in Romantic literature that man is first seen as making himself. (Modern Tragedy 71)’ How, exactly, does the promise of Romanticism go so wrong as to deny, even to reverse, its own deepest impulses? As Williams says, it has partly to do with the inadequacy of any existing social theory in that moment. Liberal political economy certainly would not do. Marx famously wrote than human beings make their own history but not under conditions of their own choosing. Likewise, when the Romantic project of man making himself is "particularised, to social criticism and construction, it encounters fundamental obstacles." The turn is to utopia: ‘It is easier to visualise the ideal in an exotic or fabled community (or an historical community transformed by those elements). The existing social world is seen as so hostile to what is most deeply human that even what begins as social criticism tends to pass into nihilism. (Modern Tragedy 71)’ Thus, in the space of a page in Modern Tragedy, does the promise of the so-called Romantic movement, now understood in its relation to revolution and tragedy, pass from everything to nothing.


What distinguishes Williams’s treatment of Romanticism in Modern Tragedy, then, is his aggressive formulation of its tendencies within the systematic unfolding of a dialectical account in which liberalism opposes the feudal order, clearing the way for the modern idea of revolution, but then finds its contradictions played out in two apparently rival modes of representation that are actually mutually complementary. The dialectical contradictions within each of these modes is in turn examined so that each turns against its own most promising drives and aspirations. Over the course of Modern Tragedy, Williams ultimately works out, first in theory and then in applied critical practice, how an enriched understanding of the relationship between tragedy and revolution can point a way forward. In the end, the paradoxical optimism of this book about tragedy is perhaps best understood in relation to its distinctive moment in the mid-1960s, a time when Williams was active in movements that provide a flash of hope that, for a time, brightened Britain’s social and political prospects.

The point I wish to emphasize here is that Williams represents Romanticism in his study of the history of a dramatic form in a way that feels far less immersive than the accounts offered only a few years earlier in Culture and Society and The Long Revolution. All three books work in an essayistic mode, but there is a systematicity to the unfolding arguments of Modern Tragedy that is far more pronounced than anything in those earlier books. Modern Tragedy indeed anticipates the marked systematicity of Marxism and Literature about a decade later. Yet as I have noted, the systematic language in that late book is mainly aimed at constructing the critical edifice with which Williams sought to supplant the powerful program of Richards. It offers an account of British culture and society only incidentally, along the way, with next to nothing about "Romanticism" as such. It is thus telling that, in the comments we considered earlier about what happens to the "multiplicity of literature" in the "late-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries," Romanticism never quite gets to hear the sound of its own name—though "romance" as a sub-genre does, along with references to the creative imagination and other Romantic topics. Likewise, when Williams turned back to English literary history and criticism in The Country and the City, Romanticism as such plays very little role, a point that gains added force when one considers how many pages are devoted, say, to Wordsworth. A quick search of The Country and the City will show that "romantic" is nearly always used there in its lowercase form, an everyday descriptor rather than a term associated with a particular literary and intellectual movement around the turn of the nineteenth century: "romantic love," "romantic compliment," "romantic lovers," "romantic wastes," "romantic strain," "romantic attachment," "romantic atmosphere," "romantic destiny" (to name just a few) (Country 23, 25, 63, 69, 71, 203, 227, 251).

It would be wrong to conclude that Williams somehow came to forget about the "Romantic movement" in his late work. He even refers to it once in passing, when, in making a point about eighteenth-century enclosures, he explains that it "connects with that structure of feeling which was beginning to form, from Goldsmith to the poets of the Romantic movement, and which is particularly visible in Clare: the loss of the ‘old country’" (Country 137). Yet this way of gesturing casually to the shared cultural figures and formations of the two generations of poets "from Blake and Wordsworth to Shelley and Keats," as he identifies them in Culture and Society, already marks quite a change, if only because names are named only for the period-bracketing figures of Goldsmith and Clare.

Nor should we conclude that the decades around the turn of the nineteenth century in Britain ceased to be pivotal for Williams: when he traces the history of the most important terms in Keywords, many of the transformations he calls decisive (a favorite word of his own) tend to occur in the passage from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century. The point is rather that the figures and topoi of Romanticism as such, once the starting point in Culture and Society and The Long Revolution, and indeed the guidelines for Richards’s immersive practical criticism embraced by Williams in his early years, had become systematized as far as they could be in the dialectics of Modern Tragedy. After that, Romanticism as such held diminished interest for his late work on literature, media, and society.

Works Cited

Abrams, M. H. The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition. Oxford UP, 1953.
Bate, Walter Jackson. From Classic to Romantic: Premises of Taste in Eighteenth-Century England. Harvard UP, 1946.
Bloom, Harold. Shelley’s Mythmaking. Yale UP, 1959.
Chandler, James. “I. A. Richards and Raymond Williams: Reading Poetry, Reading Society.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 46, no. 2, 2020, pp. 325–52.
Ferry, David. The Limits of Mortality: An Essay on Wordsworth’s Major Poems. Wesleyan UP, 1959.
Frye, Northrop. Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake. Princeton UP, 1947.
Jones, John. The Egotistical Sublime: A History of Wordsworth’s Imagination. Chatto & Windus, 1954.
Kermode, Frank. Romantic Image. Macmillan, 1957.
Langbaum, Robert. The Poetry of Experience: The Dramatic Monologue in Modern Literary Tradition. Random House, 1957.
Naremore, James. An Invention without a Future: Essays on Cinema. U of California P, 2014.
Wasserman, Earl. The Finer Tone: Keats’ Major Poems. The Johns Hopkins UP, 1953.
Williams, Raymond. Border Country. Chatto & Windus, 1960.
———. The Country and the City. Oxford UP, 1973.
———. Culture and Society, 1780–1950. 1958. Harper & Row, 1966.
———. Drama: From Ibsen to Eliot. Chatto & Windus, 1952.
———. Drama in Performance. Frederick Muller LTD, 1954.
———. The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence. Oxford UP, 1970.
———. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. 1976. Oxford UP, 2015.
———. The Long Revolution. Columbia UP, 1961.
———. Marxism and Literature. Oxford UP, 1977.
———. Modern Tragedy. 1966. Hogarth Press, 1992.
———. Politics and Letters: Interviews with New Left Review. New Left Review Books, 1979.
———, and Michael Orrom. Preface to Film. Film Drama Limited, 1954.
Wordsworth, William. The Prose Works of William Wordsworth. Edited by W. J. B. Owen and Jane Worthington Smyser, vol. 3, Oxford UP, 1974.


1. I would like to thank my research assistant, Eric Powell, for his help in tracking down references and preparing this essay for publication. The concept of structures of feeling was first developed by Williams and Orrom in Preface to Film. For an extended account of the development of the concept throughout Williams’s oeuvre, see Chandler, “I. A. Richards and Raymond Williams” (344–52). [back]
2. See also James Naremore’s invocation of Williams’s point in a parallel discussion of how imitative and expressionist styles of film acting likewise amount to two sides of the same coin (59–60). [back]
3. See Chandler, “I. A. Richards and Raymond Williams.” [back]