There is so much that could be said about style that it is hard to know where to end, never mind where to begin. Up to now I have alluded to Aristotle, Cicero and to Quintilian with respect to classical style and classical definitions of style. The Romantics were to stand the classical world on its head insofar as they were open to strong emotions – trepidation, awe, horror, gothic scenes and experiences – and also they appealed to the personal experience both of the writer and of the reader. All of this was new and exciting, full of the very energies of nature, in the raw as it were. Romanticism stressed the awe of nature in art. Perhaps a good way of explaining what that all-embracing term “romanticism” means is to counterpoint and contrast it to that period of high reason, namely the Enlightenment, which preceded it chronologically on the dateline. There was Romanticism in all areas of the Arts – Art itself, Music and Literature. As regards the first of these two I am singularly ignorant, while of the last I know not a little.
Among the characteristic attitudes of Romanticism were the following: a deepened appreciation of the beauties of nature; a general exaltation of emotion over reason and of the senses over intellect; a turning in upon the self and a heightened examination of human personality and its moods and mental potentialities; a preoccupation with the genius, the hero, and the exceptional figure in general, and a focus on his passions and inner struggles; a new view of the artist as a supremely individual creator, whose creative spirit is more important than strict adherence to formal rules and traditional procedures; an emphasis upon imagination as a gateway to transcendent experience and spiritual truth; an obsessive interest in folk culture, national and ethnic cultural origins, and the medieval era; and a predilection for the exotic, the remote, the mysterious, the weird, the occult, the monstrous, the diseased, and even the satanic.
Romanticism in English literature was ushered in by the two great Lake Poets – William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. They were contemporaries and friends. Coleridge to my mind was undoubtedly the greater because of his broad and incisive mind and his great command of such areas as philosophy, politics, theology and other subjects. He was no mean poet and was indeed one of the first great literary critics. One could argue that his marvellous Biographia Literaria is one of the foundational works in literary criticism, while at the same time laying a good philosophical foundation for the same. Coleridge is both the poet and the philosopher of the imagination. It was he who was to define imagination in his own coined word as “the esemplastic power” at the heart of every creative being, that power which could make and forge new things that had never existed before. Coleridge is probably more widely known for his few very famous poems: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Christabel, and Kubla Khan, as well as his famous conversational poems like my favourite Frost at Midnight (written while minding his infant son, Hartley), This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison, Dejection and The Pains of Sleep.
Coleridge was to define a poem as “the best words in the best order”. This definition to my mind would also apply to style itself. Each individual wishing to write something, whether it is a poem, a play, a short story, a novel, or a simply personal letter to a friend should wish to choose the most appropriate and suitable words for what he or she would wish to say or to communicate. Hence, the writer should aim to choose the best words he possibly can and then to lay them out in the best possible order as suits the medium. For a poem, obviously the order would be different to say, that of a letter or short story.
Coleridge, to my mind was wonderfully larger than life – read Richard Holmes’ two volume biography and you will get more than a taste of this wonderfully eccentric and talented individual. He was a great stylist as all the Romantics were. He was an idealist and Platonist by nature – he subscribed to the Utopian idea of wishing to set up a community, called Pantisocracy on the banks of the Susquehanna River in America (Pennsylvania). He used opium often, taking it in the form of laudanum, and needless to say, he became addicted to it. He failed to take his degree at Cambridge, preferring the wild life and swimming in the river Cam. He once ran away and joined the army, a cavalry regiment to which he was ill-suited, under the strange, unlikely and almost unbelievable pseudonym of Silas Tomkyn Comberbache, (also STC) He was a useless horseman and had to be bought out of the army by his friends and family. He studied philosophy at Heidelberg in Germany, and was much influenced by the transcendental idealism of Immanuel Kant. He travelled to Italy, Sicily and Malta, and described the rather painful experience of having a primitive enema done by a ship’s surgeon after drug-induced chronic constipation. Such is my romantic hero – a man of pure style – a man who was unafraid to follow his heart and his wild imagination and to follow them wherever they might lead him. In so doing they led him to write wonderful poems and prose in such an individual style as to have a lasting effect on English Literature and on Literary Criticism in general. If there is a heaven, and if writers such as STC go there, he is the first one I want to meet. At least I should like to sit in on a little of his wondrously stylish table talk.
I have placed an early portrait of Coleridge above. He was around 25 when it was painted. One can see he was a man of style!