Victor Hugo's phrase "liberalism in literature," meaning especially the freeing of the artist and writer from restrains and rules and suggesting that phase of individualism marked by the encouragement of revolutionary political ideas. The poet Heine noted the chief aspect of German romanticism in calling it the revival of medievalism in art, letters, and life. Walter Pater thought the addition of strangement to beauty (the neoclassicists having insisted on order in beauty) constituted the romantic temper. An interesting schematic explanation calls romanticism the predominance of imagination over reason and formal rules (classicism) and over the sense of fact or the actual (realism), a formula that recalls Hazlitt's statement (1816) that the class beauty of a Greek temple resided chiefly in its actual form and its obvious connotations, whereas the "romantic" beauty of a Gothic building or ruin arose from associated ideas that the imagination was stimulated to conjure up. The term is used in many senses, a recent favorite being that which sees in the romantic mood a psychological desire to escape from unpleasant realities.
Perhaps more useful to the student than definitions will be a list of romantic characteristics, though romanticism was not a clearly conceived system. Among the aspects of the romantic movement in England may be listed: sensibility; primitivism; love of nature; sympathetic interest in the past, especially the medieval; mysticism; individualism; romanticism criticism; and a reaction against whatever characterized neoclassicism. Among the specific characteristics embraced by these general attitudes are: the abandonment of the heroic couplet in favor of blank verse, the sonnet, the Spenserian stanza, and many experimental verse forms; the dropping of the conventional poetic diction in favor of fresher language and bolder figures; the idealization of rural life (Goldsmith); enthusiasm for the wild, irregular, or grotesque in nature and art; unrestrained imagination; enthusiasm for the uncivilized or "natural"; interest in human rights (Burns, Byron); sympathy with animal life (Cowper); sentimental melancholy (Gray); emotional psychology in fiction (Richardson); collection and imitation of popular ballads (Percy, Scott); interest in ancient Celtic and Scandinavian mythology and literature ; renewed interest in Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton. Typical literary forms include the lyric, especially the love lyric, the reflective lyric, the nature lyric, and the lyric of morbid melancholy...;the sentimental novel; the metrical romance; the sentimental comedy; the ballad; the problem novel; the historical novel; the Gothic romance; the sonnet; and the critical essay....
The term designates a literary and philosophical theory that tends to see the individual at the center of all life, and it places the individual, therefore, at the center of art, making literature valuable as an expression of unique feelings and particular attitudes (the expressive theory of criticism) and valuing its fidelity in portraying experiences, however fragmentary and incomplete, more than it values adherence to completeness, unity, or the demands of genre. Although romanticism tends at times to regard nature as alien, it more often sees in nature a revelation of Truth, the "living garment of God," and a more suitable subject for art than those aspects of the world sullied by artifice. Romanticism seeks to find the Absolute, the Ideal, by transcending the actual, whereas realism finds its values in the actual and naturalism in the scientific laws the undergird the actual.
Introduction to Romanticism
Romanticism has very little to do with things popularly thought of as "romantic," although love may occasionally be the subject of Romantic art. Rather, it is an international artistic and philosophical movement that redefined the fundamental ways in which people in Western cultures thought about themselves and about their world.
If the Enlightenment was a movement which started among tiny elite and slowly spread to make its influence felt throughout society, Romanticism was more widespread both in its origins and influence. No other intellectual/artistic movement has had comparable variety, reach, and staying power since the end of the Middle Ages.
It is one of the curiosities of literary history that the strongholds of the Romantic Movement were England and Germany, not the countries of the romance languages themselves. Thus it is from the historians of English and German literature that we inherit the convenient set of terminal dates for the Romantic period, beginning in 1798, the year of the first edition of Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge and of the composition of Hymns to the Night by Novalis, and ending in 1832, the year which marked the deaths of both Sir Walter Scott and Goethe. However, as an international movement affecting all the arts, Romanticism begins at least in the 1770's and continues into the second half of the nineteenth century, later for American literature than for European, and later in some of the arts, like music and painting, than in literature. This extended chronological spectrum (1770-1870) also permits recognition as Romantic the poetry of Robert Burns and William Blake in England, the early writings of Goethe and Schiller in Germany, and the great period of influence for Rousseau's writings throughout Europe.
The early Romantic period thus coincides with what is often called the "age of revolutions"--including, of course, the American (1776) and the French (1789) revolutions--an age of upheavals in political, economic, and social traditions, the age which witnessed the initial transformations of the Industrial Revolution. A revolutionary energy was also at the core of Romanticism, which quite consciously set out to transform not only the theory and practice of poetry (and all art), but the very way we perceive the world. Some of its major precepts have survived into the twentieth century and still affect our contemporary period.
Beginning in the last decades of the 18th century, it transformed poetry, the novel, drama, painting, sculpture, all forms of concert music (especially opera), and ballet. It was deeply connected with the politics of the time, echoing people's fears, hopes, and aspirations. It was the voice of revolution at the beginning of the 19th century and the voice of the Establishment at the end of it.
Elements of Romaticism
The imagination was elevated to a position as the supreme faculty of the mind. This contrasted distinctly with the traditional arguments for the supremacy of reason. The Romantics tended to define and to present the imagination as our ultimate "shaping" or creative power, the approximate human equivalent of the creative powers of nature or even deity. It is dynamic, an active, rather than passive power, with many functions. Imagination is the primary faculty for creating all art. On a broader scale, it is also the faculty that helps humans to constitute reality, for (as Wordsworth suggested), we not only perceive the world around us, but also in part create it. Uniting both reason and feeling (Coleridge described it with the paradoxical phrase, "intellectual intuition"), imagination is extolled as the ultimate synthesizing faculty, enabling humans to reconcile differences and opposites in the world of appearance. The reconciliation of opposites is a central ideal for the Romantics. Finally, imagination is inextricably bound up with the other two major concepts, for it is presumed to be the faculty which enables us to "read" nature as a system of symbols.
"Nature" meant many things to the Romantics. As suggested above, it was often presented as itself a work of art, constructed by a divine imagination, in emblematic language. For example, throughout "Song of Myself," Whitman makes a practice of presenting commonplace items in nature--"ants," "heap'd stones," and "poke-weed"--as containing divine elements, and he refers to the "grass" as a natural "hieroglyphic," "the handkerchief of the Lord." While particular perspectives with regard to nature varied considerably--nature as a healing power, nature as a source of subject and image, nature as a refuge from the artificial constructs of civilization, including artificial language--the prevailing views accorded nature the status of an organically unified whole. It was viewed as "organic," rather than, as in the scientific or rationalist view, as a system of "mechanical" laws, for Romanticism displaced the rationalist view of the universe as a machine (e.g., the deistic image of a clock) with the analogue of an "organic" image, a living tree or mankind itself. At the same time, Romantics gave greater attention both to describing natural phenomena accurately and to capturing "sensuous nuance"--and this is as true of Romantic landscape painting as of Romantic nature poetry. Accuracy of observation, however, was not sought for its own sake. Romantic nature poetry is essentially a poetry of meditation.
Symbolism and Myth
Symbolism and myth were given great prominence in the Romantic conception of art. In the Romantic view, symbols were the human aesthetic correlatives of nature's emblematic language. They were valued too because they could simultaneously suggest many things, and were thus thought superior to the one-to-one communications of allegory. Partly, it may have been the desire to express the "inexpressible"--the infinite--through the available resources of language that led to symbol at one level and myth (as symbolic narrative) at another.
Other Concepts: Emotion, Lyric Poetry, and the Self
Other aspects of Romanticism were intertwined with the above three concepts. Emphasis on the activity of the imagination was accompanied by greater emphasis on the importance of intuition, instincts, and feelings, and Romantics generally called for greater attention to the emotions as a necessary supplement to purely logical reason. When this emphasis was applied to the creation of poetry, a very important shift of focus occurred. Wordsworth's definition of all good poetry as "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" marks a turning point in literary history. By locating the ultimate source of poetry in the individual artist, the tradition, stretching back to the ancients, of valuing art primarily for its ability to imitate human life (that is, for its mimetic qualities) was reversed. In Romantic theory, art was valuable not so much as a mirror of the external world, but as a source of illumination of the world within. Among other things, this led to a prominence for first-person lyric poetry never accorded it in any previous period. The "poetic speaker" became less a persona and more the direct person of the poet. Wordsworth's Prelude and Whitman's "Song of Myself" are both paradigms of successful experiments to take the growth of the poet's mind (the development of self) as subject for an "epic" enterprise made up of lyric components. Confessional prose narratives such as Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) and Chateaubriand's Rene (1801), as well as disguised autobiographical verse narratives such as Byron's Childe Harold (1818), are related phenomena. The interior journey and the development of the self recurred everywhere as subject material for the Romantic artist. The artist-as-hero is a specifically Romantic type.
Contrasts With Neoclassicism
Consequently, the Romantics sought to define their goals through systematic contrast with the norms of "Versailles neoclassicism." In their critical manifestoes--the 1800 "Preface" to Lyrical Ballads, the critical studies of the Schlegel brothers in Germany, the later statements of Victor Hugo in France, and of Hawthorne, Poe, and Whitman in the United States--they self-consciously asserted their differences from the previous age (the literary "ancien regime"), and declared their freedom from the mechanical "rules." Certain special features of Romanticism may still be highlighted by this contrast. We have already noted two major differences: the replacement of reason by the imagination for primary place among the human faculties and the shift from a mimetic to an expressive orientation for poetry, and indeed all literature. In addition, neoclassicism had prescribed for art the idea that the general or universal characteristics of human behavior were more suitable subject matter than the peculiarly individual manifestations of human activity. From at least the opening statement of Rousseau's Confessions, first published in 1781--"I am not made like anyone I have seen; I dare believe that I am not made like anyone in existence. If I am not superior, at least I am different."--this view was challenged.
Individualism: The Romantic Hero
The Romantics asserted the importance of the individual, the unique, even the eccentric. Consequently they opposed the character typology of neoclassical drama. In another way, of course, Romanticism created its own literary types. The hero-artist has already been mentioned; there were also heaven-storming types from Prometheus to Captain Ahab, outcasts from Cain to the Ancient Mariner and even Hester Prynne, and there was Faust, who wins salvation in Goethe's great drama for the very reasons--his characteristic striving for the unattainable beyond the morally permitted and his insatiable thirst for activity--that earlier had been viewed as the components of his tragic sin. (It was in fact Shelley's opinion that Satan, in his noble defiance, was the real hero of Milton's Paradise Lost.)
In style, the Romantics preferred boldness over the preceding age's desire for restraint, maximum suggestiveness over the neoclassical ideal of clarity, free experimentation over the "rules" of composition, genre, and decorum, and they promoted the conception of the artist as "inspired" creator over that of the artist as "maker" or technical master. Although in both Germany and England there was continued interest in the ancient classics, for the most part the Romantics allied themselves with the very periods of literature that the neoclassicists had dismissed, the Middle Ages and the Baroque, and they embraced the writer whom Voltaire had called a barbarian, Shakespeare. Although interest in religion and in the powers of faith were prominent during the Romantic period, the Romantics generally rejected absolute systems, whether of philosophy or religion, in favor of the idea that each person (and humankind collectively) must create the system by which to live.
The Everyday and the Exotic
The attitude of many of the Romantics to the everyday, social world around them was complex. It is true that they advanced certain realistic techniques, such as the use of "local color" (through down-to-earth characters, like Wordsworth's rustics, or through everyday language, as in Emily Bronte's northern dialects or Whitman's colloquialisms, or through popular literary forms, such as folk narratives). Yet social realism was usually subordinate to imaginative suggestion, and what was most important were the ideals suggested by the above examples, simplicity perhaps, or innocence. Earlier, the 18th-century cult of the noble savage had promoted similar ideals, but now artists often turned for their symbols to domestic rather than exotic sources--to folk legends and older, "unsophisticated" art forms, such as the ballad, to contemporary country folk who used "the language of commen men," not an artificial "poetic diction," and to children (for the first time presented as individuals, and often idealized as sources of greater wisdom than adults).
Simultaneously, as opposed to everyday subjects, various forms of the exotic in time and/or place also gained favor, for the Romantics were also fascinated with realms of existence that were, by definition, prior to or opposed to the ordered conceptions of "objective" reason. Often, both the everyday and the exotic appeared together in paradoxical combinations. In the Lyrical Ballads, for example, Wordsworth and Coleridge agreed to divide their labors according to two subject areas, the natural and the supernatural: Wordsworth would try to exhibit the novelty in what was all too familiar, while Coleridge would try to show in the supernatural what was psychologically real, both aiming to dislodge vision from the "lethargy of custom." The concept of the beautiful soul in an ugly body, as characterized in Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, is another variant of the paradoxical combination.
The Romantic Artist in Society
In another way too, the Romantics were ambivalent toward the "real" social world around them. They were often politically and socially involved, but at the same time they began to distance themselves from the public. As noted earlier, high Romantic artists interpreted things through their own emotions, and these emotions included social and political consciousness--as one would expect in a period of revolution, one that reacted so strongly to oppression and injustice in the world. So artists sometimes took public stands, or wrote works with socially or politically oriented subject matter. Yet at the same time, another trend began to emerge, as they withdrew more and more from what they saw as the confining boundaries of bourgeois life. In their private lives, they often asserted their individuality and differences in ways that were to the middle class a subject of intense interest, but also sometimes of horror. ("Nothing succeeds like excess," wrote Oscar Wilde, who, as a partial inheritor of Romantic tendencies, seemed to enjoy shocking the bourgeois, both in his literary and life styles.) Thus the gulf between "odd" artists and their sometimes shocked, often uncomprehending audience began to widen. Some artists may have experienced ambivalence about this situation--it was earlier pointed out how Emily Dickinson seemed to regret that her "letters" to the world would go unanswered. Yet a significant Romantic theme became the contrast between artist and middle-class "Philistine." Unfortunately, in many ways, this distance between artist and public remains with us today.
Spread of the Romantic Spirit
Finally, it should be noted that the revolutionary energy underlying the Romantic Movement affected not just literature, but all of the arts--from music (consider the rise of Romantic opera) to painting, from sculpture to architecture. Its reach was also geographically significant, spreading as it did eastward to Russia, and westward to America. For example, in America, the great landscape painters, particularly those of the "Hudson River School," and the Utopian social colonies that thrived in the 19th century, are manifestations of the Romantic spirit on this side of the Atlantic.
Some critics have believed that the two identifiable movements that followed Romanticism--Symbolism and Realism--were separate developments of the opposites which Romanticism itself had managed, at its best, to unify and to reconcile. Whether or not this is so, it is clear that Romanticism transformed Western culture in many ways that survive into our own times. It is only very recently that any really significant turning away from Romantic paradigms has begun to take place, and even that turning away has taken place in a dramatic, typically Romantic way.
Today a number of literary theorists have called into question two major Romantic perceptions: that the literary text is a separate, individuated, living "organism"; and that the artist is a fiercely independent genius who creates original works of art. In current theory, the separate, "living" work has been dissolved into a sea of "intertextuality," derived from and part of a network or "archive" of other texts--the many different kinds of discourse that are part of any culture. In this view, too, the independently sovereign artist has been demoted from a heroic, consciously creative agent, to a collective "voice," more controlled than controlling, the intersection of other voices, other texts, ultimately dependent upon possibilities dictated by language systems, conventions, and institutionalized power structures. It is an irony of history, however, that the explosive appearance on the scene of these subversive ideas, delivered in what seemed to the establishment to be radical manifestoes, and written by linguistically powerful individuals, has recapitulated the revolutionary spirit and events of Romanticism itself.
Adapted from A Guide to the Study of Literature: A Companion Text for Core Studies 6, Landmarks of Literature, ©English Department, Brooklyn College
Folklore and Popular Art
Some of the earliest stirrings of the Romantic movement are conventionally traced back to the mid-18th-century interest in folklore which arose in Germany--with Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm collecting popular fairy tales and other scholars like Johann Gottfried von Herder studying folk songs--and in England with Joseph Addison and Richard Steele treating old ballads as if they were high poetry. These activities set the tone for one aspect of Romanticism: the belief that products of the uncultivated popular imagination could equal or even surpass those of the educated court poets and composers who had previously monopolized the attentions of scholars and connoisseurs.
Whereas during much of the 17th and 18th centuries learned allusions, complexity and grandiosity were prized, the new romantic taste favored simplicity and naturalness; and these were thought to flow most clearly and abundantly from the "spontaneous" outpourings of the untutored common people. In Germany in particular, the idea of a collective Volk (people) dominated a good deal of thinking about the arts. Rather than paying attention to the individual authors of popular works, these scholars celebrated the anonymous masses who invented and transmuted these works as if from their very souls. All of this fantasizing about the creative folk process reflected precious little knowledge about the actual processes by which songs and stories are created and passed on and created as well an ideology of the essence of the German soul which was to be used to dire effect by the Nazis in the 20th century.
The natural consequence of dwelling on creative folk genius was a good deal of nationalism. French Romantic painting is full of themes relating to the tumultuous political events of the period and later Romantic music often draws its inspiration from national folk musics. Goethe deliberately places German folkloric themes and images on a par with Classical ones in Faust.
But one of the early effects of this interest in the folk arts seems particularly strange to us moderns: the rise and spread of the reputation of William Shakespeare. Although he is regarded today as the epitome of the great writer, his reputation was at first very different. Shakespeare was a popular playwright who wrote for the commercial theater in London. He was not college-educated, and although his company had the sponsorship of King James, his work was not entirely "respectable."
Academic critics at first scorned his indiscipline, his rejection of their concepts of drama which were derived in part from ancient Roman and Greek patterns. A good play should not mix comedy with tragedy, not proliferate plots and subplots, not ramble through a wide variety of settings or drag out its story over months or years of dramatic time; but Shakespeare's plays did all these things. A proper serious drama should always be divided neatly into five acts, but Shakespeare's plays simply flowed from one scene to the next, with no attention paid to the academic rules of dramatic architecture (the act divisions we are familiar with today were imposed on his plays by editors after his death).
If the English romantics exalted Shakespeare's works as the greatest of their classics, his effect on the Germans was positively explosive. French classical theater had been the preeminent model for drama in much of Europe; but when the German Romantics began to explore and translate his works, they were overwhelmed. His disregard for the classical rules which they found so confining inspired them. Writers like Friedrich von Schiller and Goethe created their own dramas inspired by Shakespeare. Faust contains many Shakespearian allusions as well as imitating all of the nonclassical qualities enumerated above.
Because Shakespeare was a popular rather than a courtly writer, the Romantics exaggerated his simple origins. In fact he had received an excellent education which, although it fell short of what a university could offer, went far beyond what the typical college student learns today about the classics. In an age drunk on the printing and reading of books he had access to the Greek myths, Roman and English history, tales by Italian humanists and a wide variety of other materials. True, he used translations, digests, and popularizations; but he was no ignoramus.
To the Romantics, however, he was the essence of folk poetry, the ultimate vindication of their faith in spontaneous creativity. Much of the drama of the European 19th century is influenced by him, painters illustrated scenes from his plays, and composers based orchestral tone poems and operas on his narratives.
The Gothic Romance
Another quite distinct contribution to the Romantic movement was the Gothic romance. The first was Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto (1765), set in a haunted castle and containing various mysterious apparitions such as a gigantic mailed fist. This sort of thing was popularized by writers like Ann Radcliffe and M. L. Lewis (The Monk) and eventually spread abroad to influence writers like Eugène Sue (France) and Edgar Allan Poe (the U.S.). Rejecting the Enlightenment ideal of balance and rationalism, readers eagerly sought out the hysterical, mystical, passionate adventures of terrified heroes and heroines in the clutches of frightening, mysterious forces. The modern horror novel and woman's romance are both descendants of the Gothic romance, as transmuted through such masterworks as Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and her sister Emily's Wuthering Heights. Another classic Gothic work, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, is often cited as a forerunner of modern science fiction.
The Gothic novel embraced the Medieval ("Gothic") culture so disdained by the early 18th century. Whereas classical art looked back constantly to the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Romantics celebrated for the first time since the Renaissance the wilder aspects of the creativity of Western Europeans from the 12th through the 14th centuries: stained glass in soaring cathedrals, tales of Robin Hood and his merry men, and--above all--the old tales of King Arthur and the knights of the round table. This influence was to spread far beyond the Gothic romance to all artistic forms in Europe, and lives on in the popular fantasy novels of today. Fairies, witches, angels--all the fantastic creatures of the Medieval popular imagination came flooding back into the European arts in the Romantic period (and all are present in Faust).
The longing for "simpler" eras not freighted with the weight of the Classical world gave rise to a new form: the historical novel. Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) was by far its most successful practitioner. Although credit for writing the first historical novel should probably go to Madame de Lafayette for her La Princess de Clèves (1678), Scott is generally considered to have developed the form as we know it today. Almost forgotten now, his novels like The Bride of Lammermoor and Ivanhoe nevertheless inspired writers, painters, and composers in Germany, France, Italy, Russia and many other lands.
The other influential characteristic of the Gothic romance was its evocation of strong, irrational emotions--particularly horror. Whereas Voltaire and his comrades had abhorred "enthusiasm" and strove to dispel the mists of superstition; the Gothic writers evoked all manner of irrational scenes designed to horrify and amaze. Romantic writers generally also prized the more tender sentiments of affection, sorrow, and romantic longing. In this they were inspired by certain currents contemporaneous with the Enlightenment, in particular the writings of Voltaire's arch-rival, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Rousseau was a moody, over-sensitive, even paranoid sort of fellow, much given to musing on his own feelings. Like the Englishman Samuel Richardson, he explored in his fiction the agonies of frustrated love--particularly in his sensationally successful novel The New Heloise--and celebrated the peculiar refinement of feeling the English called "sensibility" which we call "sensitivity." Of all aspects of Romantic fiction, the penchant for tearful sentimental wallowing in the longings and disappointments of frustrated protagonists is most alien to modern audiences. Only in opera and film where the power of music is summoned to reinforce the emotions being evoked can most modern audiences let themselves go entirely, and then only within limits.
The great minds of the 20th century have generally rejected sentimentalism, even defining its essence as false, exaggerated emotion; and we tend to find mawkish or even comical much that the Romantic age prized as moving and beautiful. Yet there was more than cheap self-indulgence and escapism in this fevered emotionalism. Its proponents argued that one could be morally and spiritually uplifted by cultivating a greater sensitivity to feelings. The cultivation of empathy for the sufferings of others could even be a vehicle for social change, as in the works of Charles Dickens. That this emotionalism was sometimes exaggerated or artificial should not obscure the fact that it also contained much that was genuine and inspiring. It is not clear that we have gained so much by prizing in our modern literature attitudes of cynicism, detachment, and ruthlessness.
Of all the emotions celebrated by the Romantics, the most popular was love. Although the great Romantic works often center on terror or rage, the motive force behind these passions is most often a relationship between a pair of lovers. In the classical world love had been more or less identical with sex, the Romans treating it in a particularly cynical manner. The Medieval troubadours had celebrated courtly adultery according to a highly artificial code that little reflected the lives of real men and women while agreeing with physicians that romantic passion was a potentially fatal disease. It was the romantics who first celebrated romantic love as the natural birthright of every human being, the most exalted of human sentiments, and the necessary foundation of a successful marriage. Whether or not one agrees that this change of attitude was a wise one, it must be admitted to have been one of the most influential in the history of the world.
This is not the place to trace the long and complex history of how the transcendent, irrational, self-destructive passion of a Romeo and Juliet came to be considered the birthright of every European citizen; but this conviction which continues to shape much of our thinking about relationships, marriage, and the family found its mature form during the Romantic age. So thoroughly has love become identified with romance that the two are now generally taken as synonyms, disregarding the earlier associations of "romance" with adventure, terror, and mysticism.
Another important aspect of Romanticism is the exotic. Just as Romantics responded to the longing of people for a distant past, so they provided images of distant places. The distances need not be terribly great: Spain was a favorite "exotic" setting for French Romantics, for instance. North Africa and the Middle East provided images of "Asia" to Europeans. Generally anywhere south of the country where one was resided was considered more relaxed, more colorful, more sensual.
Such exoticism consisted largely of simple stereotypes endlessly repeated, but the Romantic age was also a period in which Europeans traveled more than ever to examine at first hand the far-off lands of which they had read. Much of this tourism was heavily freighted with the attitudes fostered by European colonialism, which flourished during this period. Most "natives" were depicted as inevitably lazy, unable to govern themselves while those who aspired to European sophistication were often derided as "spoiled." Many male travelers viewed the women of almost any foreign land one could name as more sexually desirable and available than the women at home, and so they are depicted in fiction, drama, art, and opera.
Just as Scott was the most influential force in popularizing the romantic historical novel, exoticism in literature was inspired more by Lord Byron--especially his Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812-1818)--than by any other single writer. Whereas the Romantic lyric poetry of Coleridge, Shelley, Keats and Wordsworth had a negligible influence outside of their native tongue, the sweep of Byron's longer poems translated well into other languages and other artistic media.
Romantic exoticism is not always in tension with Romantic nationalism, for often the latter focussed on obscure folk traditions which were in themselves exotic to the audiences newly exposed to them. Goethe's witches were not more familiar to his audience because they were Germanic, unlike, say, the Scottish witches in Macbeth.
One of the most complex developments during this period is the transformation of religion into a subject for artistic treatment far removed from traditional religious art. The Enlightenment had weakened, but hardly uprooted, established religion in Europe. As time passed, sophisticated writers and artists were less and less likely to be conventionally pious; but during the Romantic era many of them were drawn to religious imagery in the same way they were drawn to Arthurian or other ancient traditions in which they no longer believed. Religion was estheticized, and writers felt free to draw on Biblical themes with the same freedom as their predecessors had drawn on classical mythology, and with as little reverence.
Faust begins and ends in Heaven, has God and the devil as major characters, angels and demons as supporting players, and draws on wide variety of Christian materials, but it is not a Christian play. The Enlightenment had weakened the hold of Christianity over society to the extent that some at least, like Goethe, no longer felt the need to engage in the sort of fierce battles with it Voltaire had fought, but felt instead free to play with it. A comparable attitude can be seen in much of the work of the English Pre-Raphaelite painters who began in mid-century to treat Christian subjects in the context of charmingly "naive" Medievalism.
The mixture of disbelief in and fascination with religion evident in such works illustrates a general principal of intellectual history: artistic and social movements almost never behave like rigid clock pendulums, swinging all the way from one direction to another. A better metaphor for social change is the movement of waves on a beach, in which an early wave is receding while another advances over it, and elements of both become mixed together. For all that many of its features were reactions against the rationalist Enlightenment, Romanticism also incorporated much from the earlier movement, or coexisted with the changes it had brought about.
One of the most important developments of this period is the rise in the importance of individualism. Before the 18th Century, few Europeans concerned themselves with discovering their own individual identities. They were what they had been born: nobles, peasants, or merchants. As mercantalism and capitalism gradually transformed Europe, however, it destablized the old patterns. The new industrialists naturally liked to credit themselves for having built their large fortunes and rejected the right of society to regulate and tax their enterprises. Sometimes they tried to fit into the traditional patterns by buying noble titles; but more and more often they developed their own tastes in the arts and created new social and artistic movements alien to the old aristocracy. This process can be seen operating as early as the Renaissance in the Netherlands.
The changing economy not only made individualism attractive to the newly rich, it made possible a free market in the arts in which entrepreneurial painters, composers, and writers could seek out sympathetic audiences to a pay them for their works, no longer confined to handful of Church and aristocratic patrons who largely shared the same values. They could now afford to pursue their individual tastes in a way not possible even in the Renaissance.
It was in the Romantic period--not coincidentally also the period of the industrial revolution--that such concern with individualism became much more widespread. Byron in literature and Beethoven in music are both examples of romantic individualism taken to extremes. But the most influential exemplar of individualism for the 19th century was not a creative artist at all, but a military man: Napoleon Bonaparte. The dramatic way in which he rose to the head of France in the chaotic wake of its bloody revolution, led his army to a series of triumphs in Europe to build a brief but influential Empire, and created new styles, tastes, and even laws with disregard for public opinion fascinated the people of the time. He was both loved and hated; and even fifty years after his death he was still stimulating authors like Dostoyevsky, who saw in him the ultimate corrosive force which celebrated individual striving and freedom at the expense of responsibility and tradition.
We call the reckless character who seeks to remold the world to his own desires with little regard for morality or tradition "Faustian," after Goethe's character, but he might as well be called "Napoleonic."
The modern fascination with self-definition and self-invention, the notion that adolescence is naturally a time of rebellion in which one "finds oneself," the idea that the best path to faith is through individual choice, the idea that government exists to serve the individuals who have created it: all of these are products of the romantic celebration of the individual at the expense of society and tradition.
The subject of the relationship of Romanticism to nature is a vast one which can only be touched on here. There has hardly been a time since the earliest antiquity that Europeans did not celebrate nature in some form or other, but the attitudes toward nature common in the Western world today emerged mostly during the Romantic period. The Enlightenment had talked of "natural law" as the source of truth, but such law was manifest in human society and related principally to civic behavior. Unlike the Chinese and Japanese, Europeans had traditionally had little interest in natural landscapes for their own sake. Paintings of rural settings were usually extremely idealized: either well-tended gardens or tidy versions of the Arcadian myth of ancient Greece and Rome.
Here again, Rousseau is an important figure. He loved to go for long walks, climb mountains, and generally "commune with nature." His last work is called Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire (Reveries of a Solitary Walker). Europe had become more civilized, safer, and its citizens now felt freer to travel for the simple pleasure of it. Mountain passes and deep woods were no longer merely perilous hazards to be traversed, but awesome views to be enjoyed and pondered. The violence of ocean storms came to be appreciated as an esthetic object in any number of paintings, musical tone poems, and written descriptions, as in the opening of Goethe's Faust.
None of this had been true of earlier generations, who had tended to view the human and the natural as opposite poles, with the natural sometimes exercising an evil power to degrade and dehumanize those who were to drawn to it. The Romantics, just as they cultivated sensitivity to emotion generally, especially cultivated sensitivity to nature. It came to be felt that to muse by a stream, to view a thundering waterfall or even confront a rolling desert could be morally improving. Much of the nature writing of the 19th century has a religious quality to it absent in any other period. This shift in attitude was to prove extremely powerful and long-lasting, as we see today in the love of Germans, Britons and Americans for wilderness.
It may seem paradoxical that it was just at the moment when the industrial revolution was destroying large tracts of woods and fields and creating an unprecedentedly artificial environment in Europe that this taste arose; but in fact it could probably have arisen in no other time. It is precisely people in urban environments aware of the stark contrast between their daily lives and the existence of the inhabitants of the wild who romanticise nature. They are attracted to it precisely because they are no longer unselfconsciously part of it. Faust, for instance, is powerfully drawn to the moonlit landscape outside his study at the beginning of Goethe's play largely because he is so discontented with the artificial world of learning in which he has so far lived.
Scholars of English literature are prone to make much of the distinction between the Romantic and Victorian Ages, but for our purposes the latter is best viewed as merely a later stage of the former. The prudish attitudes popularly associated with Queen Victoria's reign are manifest in Germany and--to a lesser extent--in France as well. Victoria did not create Victorianism, she merely exemplified the temper of the time. But throughout the Victorian period the wild, passionate, erotic, even destructive aspects of Romanticism continue in evidence in all the arts.
Like the Enlightenment, Romanticism calls forth numerous counter-movements, like Realism, Impressionism, Neo-classicism, etc.; but like the Enlightenment, it also keeps on going. None of these were entirely to replace the Romantic impulse. Hard-bitten naturalism in fiction and film coexists today with sweeping romanticism; there are large audiences for both. The contemporary vogue for "Victorian" designs is just one of many examples of the frequent revivals of Romantic tastes and styles that have recurred throughout the twentieth century.
Looking back over the list of characteristics discussed above one can readily see that despite the fact that Romanticism was not nearly as coherent a movement as the Enlightenment, and lacked the sort of programmatic aims the latter professed, it was even more successful in changing history--changing the definition of what it means to be human.
Characteristics of Romanticism
Resulting in part from the libertarian and egalitarian ideals of the French Revolution, the romantic movements had in common only a revolt against the prescribed rules of classicism . The basic aims of romanticism were various: a return to nature and to belief in the goodness of humanity; the rediscovery of the artist as a supremely individual creator; the development of nationalistic pride; and the exaltation of the senses and emotions over reason and intellect. In addition, romanticism was a philosophical revolt against rationalism .
Romanticism in Literature
Although in literature romantic elements were known much earlier, as in the Elizabethan dramas, many critics now date English literary romanticism from the publication of Wordsworth and Coleridge 's Lyrical Ballads (1798). In the preface to the second edition of that influential work (1800), Wordsworth stated his belief that poetry results from "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings," and pressed for the use of natural everyday diction in literary works. Coleridge emphasized the importance of the poet's imagination and discounted adherence to arbitrary literary rules.
Such English romantic poets as Byron , Shelley , Robert Burns , Keats , Robert Southey , and William Cowper often focused on the individual self, on the poet's personal reaction to life. This emphasis can also be found in such prose works as the essays of Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt and in Thomas De Quincey 's autobiographical Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1822). The interest of romantics in the medieval period as a time of mystery, adventure, and aspiration is evidenced in the Gothic romance and in the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott . William Blake was probably the most singular of the English romantics. His poems and paintings are radiant, imaginative, and heavily symbolic, indicating the spiritual reality underlying the physical reality.
In Germany the Sturm und Drang school, with its obsessive interest in medievalism, prepared the way for romanticism. Friedrich Schlegel first used the term romantic to designate a school of literature opposed to classicism, and he also applied the philosophical ideas of Immanuel Kant and J. G. Fichte to the "romantic ideal." Major German writers associated with romanticism include G. E. Lessing , J. G. Herder , Friedrich Hölderlin , Schiller , and particularly Goethe , who had a mystic feeling for nature and for Germany's medieval past.
France and Other European Countries
The credo of French romanticism was set forth by Victor Hugo in the preface to his drama Cromwell (1828) and in his play Hernani (1830). Hugo proclaimed the freedom of the artist in both choice and treatment of a subject. The French romantics included Chateaubriand , Alexandre Dumas père, Alphonse de Lamartine , Alfred de Vigny , Alfred de Musset , and George Sand . Other leading romantic figures were Giacomo Leopardi and Alessandro Manzoni in Italy, and Aleksandr Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov in Russia.
The United States
In the United States romanticism had philosophic expression in transcendentalism , notably in the works of Emerson and Thoreau . Poets such as Poe , Whittier , and Longfellow all produced works in the romantic vein. Walt Whitman in particular expressed pride in his individual self and the democratic spirit. The works of James Fenimore Cooper reflected the romantic interest in the historical past, whereas the symbolic novels of Hawthorne and Melville emphasized the movement's concern with transcendent reality.
Romanticism in the Visual Arts
In the visual arts romanticism is used to refer loosely to a trend that appears at any time, and specifically to the art of the early 19th cent. Nineteenth-century romanticism was characterized by the avoidance of classical forms and rules, emphasis on the emotional and spiritual, representation of the unattainable ideal, nostalgia for the grace of past ages, and a predilection for exotic themes.
Romantic artists developed precise techniques in order to produce specific associations in the mind of the viewer. To convey verbal concepts they would, for example, endow inanimate objects with human values (e.g., the wild trees and shimmery moonlight used in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich to suggest an infinity of human longing, the weltschmerz of his time). The result was often sentimental or ludicrous. In the case of Delacroix , however, his painterly style and color sense exalted the romantic attitude in a singularly effective fashion.
In England landscape gardening was used to express the romantic aesthetic by means of deliberate imitation of the picturesque in nature. In architecture Wyatt 's preposterous, mock medieval Fonthill Abbey displayed the romantic building style in extreme form. The host of lesser artists of the romantic tradition included the French Géricault , the Swiss-English Henry Fuseli , the Swiss Arnold Böcklin , the English Pre-Raphaelites , the German Nazarenes , and the American artists of the Hudson River school .
Romanticism in Music
Romanticism in music was characterized by an emphasis on emotion and great freedom of form. It attained its fullest development in the works of German composers. Although elements of romanticism are present in the music of Beethoven , Weber , and Schubert , it reached its zenith in the works of Berlioz , Mendelssohn , Schumann , Chopin , Liszt , and Wagner . Less totally romantic composers usually placed in the middle period of romanticism are Brahms , Tchaikovsky , Dvořák , and Grieg ; those grouped in the last phase include Elgar , Puccini , Mahler , Richard Strauss , and Sibelius .
Many romantic composers, including Mendelssohn, Schumann, Chopin, and Brahms, worked in small forms that are flexible in structure, e.g., prelude, intermezzo, nocturne, ballad, and cappriccio, especially in solo music for the piano. Another romantic contribution was the art song for voice and piano, most notably the German lied (see song ). Romantic composers, particularly Liszt, in combining music and literature, created the symphonic poem . Berlioz also made use of literature; much of his work is described as program music . Romantic opera began with Weber, included the works of the Italians Rossini , Bellini , Donizetti , and Verdi , and culminated in the work of Wagner, who aimed at a complete synthesis of the arts in his idea of Gesamtkunstwerk [total work of art].
While Tchaikovsky was inspired by a more universal romanticism, the movement in Russia was nationalist in nature, exemplified by the works of Mikhail Glinka . The music of the Czech composers Bedřich Smetana and Dvořák and that of the Norwegian composer Grieg also expressed romantic nationalism. Toward the end of the 19th cent. interest in classical forms was revived by Bruckner , Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Franck . The end of the romantic period—frequently described as decadent and grandiose—is often referred to as postromanticism and is represented by the works of Holst , Elgar, Mahler, and Richard Strauss.