Renaissance, Neoclassical, And Romantic Conceptions
The Age of Reason, as has so often been asserted, was an age characterized for many by a commitment to individual and social order, supported by the adoption of taxonomies and systems conducive to the maintenance of that order. It should come as no surprise, therefore, to perceive the continued presence of genre, particularly as a limiting agent in literary culture, for a significant part of this period, albeit with limited acceptance in some quarters toward the close of the eighteenth century.
The persistence of genre in the Age of Reason is a logical continuation of the revival of classical thought, and indeed, of renewed reverence for the classical texts of Greek and Roman antiquity, during the Renaissance period of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Renaissance brought a revival of interest in the writings of Aristotle in particular, and already-established notions of decorum—the relationship of form to subject matter or occasion—were in many respects confirmed for the purposes of the present by the antecedent of classical thought. The association, for example, of the sonnet as a form particularly suitable for amorous verse was effectively concretized in the courtly writings of the Renaissance period, the essay also coming to parallel (and subsequently to eclipse, albeit later, in the eighteenth century) the Socratic dialogue as the appropriate medium for philosophical and literary speculation. The broader genres of classical thought thus began to fragment into distinct stylistic identities that held the potential of eventual development into genres (or at least subgenres) in their own right. The pastoral also reappeared in the form of eclogues (short poems, not necessarily in dialogue form) in the Latin and vernacular tongues, in many cases under the influence of the Italian poet Petrarch (1304–1374) and his imitators, following a period of neglect during the Middle Ages.
This is not to say that the Renaissance was simply an age of revival, devoid of genre development and speculation. Developing from a medieval and early Renaissance tradition of chivalric, and at times fantastic, storytelling, the romance became an established literary form from the fifteenth century, and in England at least was considered predominantly a prose genre. In this context, the romance is a genre of adventure or experience, describing events and actions often fanciful or exaggerated, though which may be frequently utilized as a vehicle for personal or social exploration. The Renaissance genre of romance—and, by implication, its medieval antecedents in the depiction of Arthurian and classical heroes—itself enters into introspection in the early seventeenth century with the publication of Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote (1605–1615), which mocks not merely the style of romance but its aspirations toward an idealized and meaningful life. Significantly, the romance, with its pretensions of the fantastic and its recollections of a recent, spectacular past, became unfashionable as neoclassical thought gained aesthetic ascendancy, returning to an enhanced position only with the rise of gothicism and Romanticism in the second half of the eighteenth century.
The Renaissance is the period also, perhaps unsurprisingly, of the rise as a distinct tendency within prose fiction of the picaresque, or novel of roguery. Growing from literary origins in sixteenth-century Spain, the picaresque evolved into a prose genre closely aligned to the romance by the early eighteenth century. The generic distinction, it must be noted, was applied in retrospect from the nineteenth century, though such tales of illicit love and scandal had been often distinguished in England from the mid-seventeenth century through the term novel. Despite this precedent, extended (and often episodic) picaresque works were frequently prefaced on their title pages by grandiose distinctions, such as "history" or "expedition"—applied to Henry Fielding's Tom Jones (1749) and Tobias Smollett's Humphry Clinker (1771), respectively—these niceties adding a pretension of factuality to tantalize, or trap, the potential reader. As in the classical period, any discrete genre exists in relation to other literary forms, and the relative status of one might be accreted to another through the appropriation of a signifier such as a recurrent device in titling or structure. Order, as it were, implies hierarchy and stratification as much as control and regularity: such falsehoods as those on the title pages of Tom Jones and Humphry Clinker effectively resist the alleged control exercised by the neoclassical preoccupations of the Age of Reason.
It would be overly simplistic to structure the rise of Romanticism from the last quarter of the eighteenth century as being little more than a reaction to the spiritual, political, and literary strictures allegedly imposed by the Age of Reason. Indeed, the movement proposed little more than an alternative aesthetic rather than an end to conventionalism and formulaic production through genre. In its engagement with outmoded or discarded forms of spirituality and its addressing of demotic identities, Romanticism maintained a restrictive convention of decorum, albeit one at odds with neoclassicism's reverence of Greek and Roman stylistics. Demotic and elaborately archaized forms of poetry were particularly celebrated in the presentation of uncanny events and scenes of pathos, the latter at times developing many of the sentimental attributes previously associated with the pastoral. The ballad, in particular, became a major and distinctive vehicle by which poetry might be directed away from the lofty forms and heroic subject matter of classicism and neoclassicism toward an often emotional evocation of the language and social environment of common people. Again, the association of form with subject matter or voice is an agent in the fragmentation of larger genre identities.
Romantic writers were often influenced to a greater or lesser degree by the gothic, which flourished in its first wave from the mid-eighteenth century to the early nineteenth. In terms of genre, however, the importance of the gothic lies not in its predominantly supernatural subject matter or commitment to depictions of the grotesque and excessive, but to its aesthetics and conventions being applied across prose, poetry, and drama. The rise of the gothic arguably marks the distinctive transition from a conception of genre based primarily upon formal differentiation to one where conventions of subject matter predominate. Decorum may no longer impose singularity: the poetic ballad may be as suitable a medium for gothic description as the prose novel. The same ballad, again, might hold the potential of being viewed as a product not merely of gothic stylistics but, recalling the parallel influence of Romanticism, as a representation of demotic or folk culture, also. Though such possibilities had been hinted at by earlier literary developments—the novel of sensibility had retained some affinity with sentimental poetry, for example—the gothic was arguably the most influential force in this blurring of generic boundaries essentially inimical to the rigid hierarchies of Enlightenment thought.
In addition to this, the shift in perception that placed subject-matter convention over form encouraged a new interest in satire, itself a form of literary production that blurs genre boundaries through its intertextual dynamic between allusion and satiric comedy. In gothic, the novelistic mockeries of Thomas Love Peacock (1785–1866) and Jane Austen (1775–1817) inform a long tradition of acute observation and wry comment, which underpins the twentieth-century cinematic satires of Young Frankenstein (1974) and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). Modern gothic, it might be added, is cinematic as well as theatrical, poetic, and novelistic in its compass.
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