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.
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.
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.
the Romantics were also fascinated with realms of existence that were...
natural and the supernatural..
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
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.
An early 19th century, pan-European movement in the arts and philosophy.
The term derives from the Romances of the Middle Ages, and refers to an idealization of reality.
In the late 18th century, it came to mean anti-Classical and represented a trend towards the picturesque and the Gothic, and a love of nostalgia, mystery and drama ...
By the early 19th century it had been broadened to include:
an enthusiasm for, and awe of, nature; a political support for liberty; an emphasis on the individual as a unique creative being; opposition to, and fear of, industrialization; an interest in the exotic and primitive; nationalism; and a dissatisfaction with life and a desire for new means of artistic expression.
This breadth of meaning has led to the definition of Romanticism as a 'feeling' and very little else.
I hope you feel enlightened