“Raymond Williams observes, in his book Culture and Society: 1780-1950, that between the end of the eighteenth century and the early years of the nineteenth, some significant shifts in the meaning of words occurred. One of the important words that underwent this shift was ‘art’ and with it, the conception of the artist changed dramatically. Williams notes that “Art came to stand for a special kind of truth, ‘imaginative truth’, and artist for a special kind of person” (15). Furthermore, the idea of the genius changed from “meaning ‘a characteristic disposition,’” to “mean ‘exalted ability’, and a distinction was made between it and talent” (Williams 15). So, a Romantic conception involved not only a new perspective on art, but also on the person and the abilities that created the art. The conception of the Romantic Artist developed into one in which the Artist “is by nature indifferent to the crude worldliness and materialism of politics and social affairs; he is devoted, rather, to the more substantial spheres of natural beauty and personal feeling” (Williams 48). While Williams goes on to explain that this view is a simplification of the interests and social engagement of the Romantic poets, elements of this view persist. It is also important to note Williams’s gendering of the Artist as male. The gender bias is not only a reflection of the conventions of the time in which his book was written, but also reveals some of the presuppositions underlying the Romantic tradition.
E. Young, in his 1759 work Conjectures on Original Composition, reveals another underlying concept: “An original may be said to be of a vegetable nature; it rises spontaneously from the vital root of genius; it grows, it is not made; Imitations are often a sort of manufacture, wrought up by those mechanics, art and labour, out of pre-existent materials not their own” (qtd. in Williams 54). The idea of the original privileges the creativity and ‘liberty’ of work that breaks new ground and is spontaneous invention over work which is the result of effort and imitation. Rather than record the mundane, “the Artist’s business is to ‘read the open secret of the universe’” (Williams 56). The Artist has access to something universal and can transcend the ordinary through inspiration.
One potential reason for the use of the Romantic tropes of the Artist in work on Sylvia Plath is the many similarities between the lives the later Romantic poets led – lives of passion, pain, fame, ending in early death – and Plath’s experiences. The poets help to create their personal fame through their poetry, which was so personally revealing. The later Romantic poets – specifically Byron, Shelley and Keats – bear striking similarities to Plath. Byron was “made famous by his despair” and all three “die out of England” (McGann 110) as expatriates, like Plath who died away from America. The “Romantic poets like Keats appear to suffer in and through their work” (McGann 136) and the same could be said of Plath. Al Strangeways states that “Plath’s connection to Romantic tradition is […] usually treated incidentally” and that this is inadequate because many of her “central conflicts […] such as her struggles with individualism […] and her interest in the extremes and intensities of the unconscious, are rooted in Romantic concerns and influenced by [a] Romantic version of conflict” (40). The trope of the suffering, tortured artist is frequent in Plath criticism, though less prevalent in Rose and Stevenson’s works. Byron’s death is also “normally thought of in relation to his marriage separation, but that domestic event merely culminated his desperate Years of Fame” (McGann 111). The observation applies equally well to Plath, a female addition to the tradition typically restricted to males, but this important idea of gender and inclusion in the canon will be returned to later in the paper.
A crucial concept for the discussion of Plath and her work is that of the ‘genius.’ Christine Battersby notes that
[b]y the end of the eighteenth century, ‘genius’ had acquired Romantic grandeur: it had been transformed from a kind of talent into a superior type of being who walked a ‘sublime’ path between ‘sanity’ and ‘madness’, between the ‘monstrous’ and the ‘superhuman’ The creative success that could be ascribed to ‘mere’ talent was opposed to that bound up with the personality of the Romantic ‘genius.’ (103)