In studying and categorizing the major critical premises about romantic aesthetics over the past fifty years,  one may agree with M. H. Abrams’ observation in The Mirror and the Lamp (1953): “Any hope, therefore, for the kind of basic agreement in criticism that we have learned to expect in the exact sciences is doomed to disappointment” (4). One may note in Abrams an emphasis, reminiscent of William James in the Varieties of Religious Experience (1901), on the individuality of the artist/visionary (a genius microcosmic and pathological) and on the need to make (what James calls) “over-beliefs.”  By Abrams’ own standards, these emphases are all characteristically “romantic.”

A good critical theory, nevertheless, has its own kind of validity.  The criterion is not the scientific verifiability of its single propositions, but the scope, precision, and coherence of the insights that it yields into the properties of single works of art and the adequacy with which it accounts for diverse kinds of art.  Such a criterion will, of course, justify not one, but a number of valid theories, all in their several ways self-consistent, applicable, and relatively adequate to the range of aesthetic phenomena; but this diversity is not to be deplored.  One lesson we gain from a survey of the history of criticsm, in fact, is the great debt we owe to the variety of the criticism of the past.  (Abrams 4-5)

In the present survey of past theories of romantic aesthetics, this admonition to remember that the lack of basic agreement is not to be deplored, as each critical theory has its own self-consistent and applicable principles [even if critics achieve their accounts “by silently translating the basic terms of all theories into their own favorite philosophical vocabulary” (5)], seems excellent advice.  Thus, in the dedication to Ecological Literary Criticism (1994), a work that takes unambiguous exception to the new historicist criticism of the ideology of the romantic aesthetic (McGann, Levinson, Liu), and to the idealist Yale School criticism (Bloom, Hartman, De Man) to which new historicism reacted, Karl Kroeber cites Blake: “Opposition to true Friendship.”

This paper will focus, then, on an appreciation of the variety of response to romantic aesthetics in key works of criticism. each loosely ‘representative’ of its period.