Introduction to Romanticism

Baton Rouge Counseling's
Managing Emotions Chart

Rejecting the "truths" of logic and mathematics (and, often, common sense!), the Romantics praised instead the powers of the "underside" of the human psyche: imagination, emotion ("feeling" and "heart"), and intuition. Romantic art, then, was characterized by high flights of imagination, not the charming & clever "fancy" or "wit" of the preceding age. For an immediate feel for the difference here, compare Shelley's passionate hysteria to Pope's measured verse, or Beethoven's later symphonies to the music of Hadyn. When one speaks of Romantic excess, TOO MUCH emotion is the problem, as the poets tended towards three excesses:

Ralph Waldo Emerson sums it all up

Against the Age of Reason's stolid absolutes of mathematical truth and scientific objectivity, the Romantics also championed the individual's subjective right to discover his/her own "truths" via the mental powers mentioned above, leading to some rather rebellious-- and scandalous-- lifestyles among some of its practitioners. (This aspect of Romanticism is evident today in the persona of the rock star.) The Romantics, more than anyone, are responsible for our notion of the artist as a special (sometimes bordering on insane) "breed apart" and the idea that the creative act involves an almost magical, spontaneous, inspired leap of imagination.

"A Peasant Family", by Louis le Nain

The Romantic emphasis on emotion and intuition led, furthermore, to a championing of those people deemed more emotional & intuitive & unconscious & closer to humankind's psychic roots-- i.e., "primitives," women, children, and simple country folk. This privileging is just what it looks like: racist and sexist.

The Exotic On Display

Related to their attraction to the primitive (and to their reaction against the smug strait-jacket of 18th-century social constraints, perhaps) was a comparable attraction to exotic settings (e.g., Coleridge's "Kubla Khan") and medieval settings (e.g., Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame). There is distance from the European present (the veritable seat of rationality in the world, as the Romantics saw it) in both space and time. Again, the motivation was the same: both are places or times before or not yet infected by the disease of Reason. There was a comparable interest by the Romantics in folk literature, especially of their native land: note Wordsworth's & Coleridge's revival of the ballad stanza, for example. (This new appreciation for folk literature is connected with another Romantic manifestation, nationalism [see below].)

While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

For many Romantics, just being away from the city was "exotic" enough, and Wordsworth, one of the "founders" of English Romanticism, was instrumental in the promotion of another Romantic revolution: the change in literary subject matter from urban-centered to nature- or rural-oriented. More than just lovers of birds & flowers, several Romantics created a veritable "Religion of Nature," projecting upon nature per se a mystical monism, or pantheism, that was itself the result of their intuitive/emotional approach to reality. Some Romantics carried their mysticism even further in their journey into the psyche's "dark side," becoming fascinated by the occult, even Satanism.

Blake's "Great Red Dragon"

The Romantics also made revolutionary changes in the form of art itself. In literature, for instance, Pope's "tick-tock-to-death" heroic couplets were replaced by great experimentation in stanza forms among the English Romantics: thus Wordsworth would write blank verse, and ballad stanzas, and Spenserian stanzas, and Italian sonnets, and irregular odes, and many other forms. In America, Whitman took it one step further, throwing out meter altogether and writing free verse. Even poetic diction was revolutionized, in accord with their championing of democracy (see below) and the simple folk: Wordsworth and Coleridge, in their "Preface" to Lyrical Ballads (1798) called for poetry in the language of the "common man," and Whitman occasionally used words whose coarseness was shocking to 19th-century purveyors of poetry. Another link to our day should be evident here: modern poets now can use four-letter words with great abandon. . . .

Liberty Leading The People
by Eugène Delacroix

Finally, one cannot underestimate the socio-political importance of the Romantics, whose dominant gestures were one and the same as those of the French Revolution, with its clamor for democracy and individual rights-- above all, its politics of "emotion." (For this reason, Bertrand Russell would later fault Romanticism for the rise of Hitler!) For better or worse, at least some of the credit or blame for the rampant nationalism of the last two centuries must be laid at Romanticism's doorstep. In recent times, the 60's hippies' cry to "let it all hang out," the "Back to Nature" movement, and the whole New Age movement are also at last latter-day manifestations of the Romantic Revolution, the motley descendents of Goethe and Wordsworth. The New Age movement also incorporates one last characteristic of Romanticism: ever since the French Revolution, those of a Romantic bent have predicted and/or yearned for an apocalyptic change in humankind, be it political, religious, or psychological. This messianism, too, continues to this day, as many wait for the time when a "new day will dawn."

Thomas C. Gannon, University of Nebraska Lincoln