Peter Gay is the author of important books about the Enlightenment as well as numerous studies of great figures of modernity, most notably Freud, and his erudition is widely celebrated for its width as well as its depth. His new book, an essay entitled Why the Romantics Matter, is genuinely charming and divertingly anecdotal; it is in every way an enjoyable read, carrying its undoubted learning with an unobtrusively light air. Its only demerit, so far as I can see, is the irrelevance of its title. Gay includes a chapter that touches on some of the more colourful German Romantic writers, such as Novalis and Friedrich Schlegel, and he offers an agreeably old-fashioned account of the genius of Beethoven, who, he says, ‘mastered the world of music simply by being himself, aggressively’. (Simply?) But otherwise most of the book is actually about modern writers and artists. It is an impressive portrait gallery, no question, that includes Gautier, Flaubert, Wilde, Cézanne and Mondrian; and Gay has knowledgeable things to say about them all. But, really, it is not what you would expect to find in a gallery of the great Romantics.
I think the justification for this peculiarity of choice is that Gay sees these later enigmatic and heroic figures as the heirs of what he calls the ‘romantic heritage’. Strindberg and T S Eliot, for instance, are said to be ‘serious late romantics’, and Matisse is identified as one of