Posted: August 7th, 2013
Romanticism and its Key Characteristics
Rather than being about the modern understanding of “romantic”, romanticism was an intellectual and artistic movement that started in the late 18th century in Europe. It was a revolt against the classical philosophies of the Industrial Revolution. Romanticism was strongly embodied in the visual arts, literature and music; it espoused liberalism and had a lasting impact on the cultivation of nationalism. Romanticism as a philosophical movement is relevant in the modern world due to its influence on this contemporary period.
Usually related to the age of revolutions, Romanticism coincided with the political revolutions that took place in Europe and America. The change in perception led to revolutions that echoed across the political, economic and social facets of civilizations. An outright rejection of set norms that focused on systems and rules without consideration of the individual occurred. Romanticism sought to change these previously held notions. The paradigm shift came in the form literary works that celebrated themes and ideals that changed the way people in the Western world view themselves, and the world around them.
The pillars of Romanticism were the role imagination played in the life of a human being, emphasis on emotion and expression, and the development of self. Values such as beauty were held in high esteem. The development of self and the “worship” of the individual were common themes found in literature and art from the Romantic era. A preoccupation with nature was quite common among adherents of Romanticism. They wanted to break away from constrains placed by the Neoclassical and Enlightenment, that focused on social art. Nature was a fundamental part of the Romantic’s mode of expression, a source of freedom from the world of men.
Development of thesis
The role that Romanticism has played to shape the world, as we know it cannot be ignored. The rejection of the Enlightenment principles and the celebration of individuality have served to change the way man is viewed with respect to society. Romantics strongly held the notion that man is a distinct individual with peculiar nuances that should be celebrated. The Enlightenment era saw man as a cog in the machinery that is life on earth. Romanticism has played a big role in religion and greatly influenced literature.
Romanticism celebrated the imagination more than the sensible, rational outlook that the Enlightenment era promoted. The thoughts and fantasies of the individual were upheld as supreme in contrast to the supreme position previously held by reason. The Romantics espoused imagination as the ultimate creative power equivalent to those possessed by nature or a deity. Imagination was acknowledged as the faculty responsible for assisting humans to understand their surroundings and its paradoxes better. It enabled humans to conciliate the duality and opposites that nature exhibits.
Lord Byron’s poem “Darkness” revels in the beauty of the duality nature offers, of light and dark,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; …
The palaces of crowned kings—the huts, (618). The quote shows clearly how the imagination of the poet takes flight and he is no longer bound by the constraints that governed poetry in the neoclassical era. Romantics strove to allow their individuality take form in the interpretation of the world around them. The use of imagination is evident in the different art forms present in the world today and the development of new ones can be linked to the Romantic era that sought to free the imagination of the individual.
Nature was a crucial part of many Romantics. Their interpretation of it varied but the awe many held of nature was consistent. Nature was held in much higher esteem unlike in the Enlightenment era. The Romantics saw nature as a force with creative power. Nature was seen as organic and alive as opposed to a system of laws. Romanticism unsettled the rationalist views the Enlightened held of nature. They understood that humans are part of nature, part of a unified whole.
The works of art and literature that celebrate nature in the Romantic sense depict the natural phenomena in an authentic manner. Precise depiction was not key, rather the sensuous elements of it. “The Eolian Harp” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is an exemplary example of the monumentalization of nature
And what if all of animated nature
Be but organic Harps diversely framed,
That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the Soul of each, and God of all? (439). In this excerpt, Coleridge extols the belief that nature and humanity are bound together. He proceeds to hint at the possibility of nature as divine.
Symbolism and myth were accorded high prominence in Romantic conception of art. Symbols were a tool that humans could employ to express their understanding of nature and events around them. The Romantics used and valued symbols for their ability to convey different meanings simultaneously thus, considered them superior to other forms of communication such as allegory. Myths were seen by Romantics as a narrative of the symbols. They expressed the infinite through the available resources of language.
The ode written by Percy Shelly “Ode to the West Wind” conveys the symbolism that had a significant role in literature from the Romantic era
Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread
On the blue surface of thine airy surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head
Of some fierce Maenad, even from the dim verge
Of the horizon to the zenith’s height,
The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge (791). This quote expresses the poet’s hope that his words will spread far, carrying his message to inspire reform and revolution. Shelley took on the role of the poet-prophet and used his poem to spread the message of change to his readers. Others have interpreted the excerpt as a lamentation of his son’s death. The poem is a perfect example of the role symbolism played. The poem, using symbolism, is open to different interpretations.
One poem that combines the imagination, nature and duality is John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale”. The eponymous nightingale is able to live through its song, something humans are incapable
Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath; (927). Keats, using the words in the quote, rejects the pursuit of pleasure and accepts that death is inevitable. The duality of the immortality of the nightingale contrasted with the mortal man is acutely obvious with the help of a little imagination. Nature is referenced by the nightingales that came about during springtime.
The Romantic era, being a time of revolution in thought, inspired the work of Mary Wollstonecraft. She is one of the earliest feminist philosophers. In response to 18th century thinking that did not promote women’s education, she questioned these philosophies “my main argument is built on this simple principle, that if [woman] be not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge and virtue; for truth must be common to all” (211). Based on the natural rights conferred to all men by God, she argues through the quote that no section of society had the right to deny another section those rights. Her work influenced the feminist philosophies of her time up to the 20th century. Through the call to respect the natural rights bestowed on everyone, Wollstonecraft supports the notion of virtue that focuses, not on the good of society, but on the happiness of the individual.
The Romanticism era inspired a change in the thoughts and habits of people beginning in the late 18th century. The rigidity associated with the Neoclassic and Enlightenment periods preceding it were shed and people were liberated to better express themselves in terms of governance, science, art, music, philosophy and literature. The celebration of life, nature and the individual were new concepts at the time. Proponents of this philosophy helped change the perspectives of the world, then and now. The works of art and literature from this period that survived provide an insight into the minds of the members of that era that played a crucial role in changing history.
The movement, in its rejection of all ideals that existed, disrupted the order that classic Western civilizations had established. This is exemplified in the French Revolution that saw the citizenry deposing the aristocratic government in place and establishing one that represented the interests of the French people. Such revolutions were questioned with reference to the tyrants, like Napoleon, it created. The aim of such revolutions was to promote the Romantic worldview and transform the governance principles and philosophies to suit the state as a whole.
Romanticism served to create the assertion of nationalism. The development of national cohesion around the languages spoken and folklore passed down sought to unite and band together a group of people together. The work of the Brothers Grimm is one such example. They collected and edited fairytales that were German in origin. Through their research into the German language, they purposed to unite the various states and principalities into one nation under the same leadership. Although their intentions were good, the result of the narrow-mindedness that arises from focusing on those with similarities was the creation of racist tendencies and xenophobia.
The philosophies espoused by this movement celebrate the individual above all else. The imagination was held in higher esteem than logic and reason and the promotion of hedonistic pleasures in celebration of the self was a common misinterpretation of the movement. This is evidenced by some of the literature and art created at the time. Beauty was celebrated as an aesthetic worthy of reverence. To the modern, contemporary audience, some of these notions seem shallow.
Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads explicates the principles that inspired the compositions of the Romantic era. The aim of the poetic compositions of this movement related incidents in every day life and related them to the language used then. The infusion of imagination and feelings was important as quoted, the poems were “a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” (295-6) and “an emotion recollected in tranquility” (303)
In summary, the contribution this era made to human history is undeniably significant. It is during this movement that Gothic architecture made a come back. It provides an insightful look into the values that the people of the late18th and early 19th century held dear. It also enables comparisons between that era and the present one. The inspiration of the revolutions that rocked that period is not wrongly placed. The modern, contemporary human in the 21st century can identify with their struggles to define themselves as unique individuals.
Greenblatt, Stephen, et al. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume 2. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006. Print.
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