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Toward a Definition of Romanticism

Because the expression Romanticism is a phenomenon of immense scope, embracing as it does, literature, politics,  history, philosophy and the arts in general, there has never been much agreement and much confusion as to what the word means. It has, in fact, been used in so many different ways that some scholars have argued that the best thing we could do with the expression is to abandon it once and for all. However, the phenomenon of Romanticism would not become less complex by simply throwing away its label of convenience.

Originally, Romanticism referred to the characteristics of romances, whose extravagance carried somewhat pejorative connotations. But in the 18th century the term came to designate a new kind of exotic landscape which evoked feelings of pleasant melancholy. The term Romantic as a designation for a school of literature opposed to the Classic was first used by the German critic Karl Wilhelm Friedrich von Schlegel (1772-1829) at the beginning of the 19th century. From Germany, this meaning was carried to England and France.

Since no single figure or literary school displays all the characteristics considered to be "Romantic," any general definitions tend to be imprecise. In addition, these characteristics are often discerned in artists and cultural movements not usually so designated. They are not, in fact, the exclusive property of the Romantic period, but it is here that they are dominant and give identity to an era.

One of the fundamentals of Romanticism is the belief in the natural goodness of man, the idea that man in a state of nature would behave well but is hindered by civilization (Rousseau --  "man is born free and everywhere he is in chains"). The "savage" is noble, childhood is good and the emotions inspired by both beliefs causes the heart to soar. On the contrary, urban life and the commitment to "getting and spending," generates a fear and distrust of the world. If man is inherently sinful, reason must restrain his passions, but if he is naturally good, then in an appropriate environment, his emotions can be trusted (Blake -- "bathe in the waters of life").

The idea of man's natural goodness and the stress on emotion also contributed to the development of Romantic individualism, that is, the belief that what is special in a man is to be valued over what is representative (the latter oftentimes connected with the conventions imposed on man by "civilized society." If a man may properly express his unique emotional self because its essence is good, he is also likely to assume also that its conflicts and corruptions are a matter of great import and a source of fascination to himself and others. So, the Romantic delights in self-analysis. Both William Wordsworth (in The Prelude) and Lord Byron (in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage), poets very different from one another, felt the need to write lengthy poems of self-dramatization. The self that Byron dramatized, a projection not identical with his own personality, was especially dear to the Romantic mind: the outcast wanderer, heroic by accursed, often on some desperate quest, in the tradition of Cain or the Flying Dutchman. S. T. Coleridge's Mariner and Herman Melville's Ahab are similar Romantic pilgrims.

For English literature the most significant expression of a Romantic commitment to emotion occurs in Wordsworth's preface to the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads (1800), where he maintains that "all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings." Although Wordsworth qualifies this assertion by suggesting that the poet is a reflective man who recollects his emotion "in tranquility," the emphasis on spontaneity, on feeling, and the use of the term overflow mark sharp diversions from the ealier ideals of judgment and restraint.

Searching for a fresh source of this spontaneous feeling, Wordsworth rejects the Neoclassic idea of the appropriate subject for serious verse and turns to the simplicities of rustic life "because in that condition the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature." That interaction with nature has for many of the Romantic poets mystical overtones. Nature is apprehended by them not only as an exemplar and source of vivid physical beauty but as a manifestation of spirit in the universe as well. In Tintern Abbey Wordsworth suggests that nature has gratified his physical being, excited his emotions, and ultimately allowed him "a sense sublime/Of something far more deeply interfused," of a spiritual force immanent not only in the forms of nature but "in the mind of man." Though not necessarily in the same terms, a similar connection between the world of nature and the world of the spirit is also made by Blake, Coleridge, Byron and Shelley.

In his desire to identify with a spiritual force, the Romantic often expressed the Faustian aspiration after the sublime and the wonderful. Committed to change, flux rather than stasis, he longs to believe that man is perfectible, that moral as well as mechanical progress is possible. Although the burst of hope and enthusiasm that marked the early stages of the French Revolution was soon muted, its echoes lingered through much of the 19th century and even survive in the 20th century. If the Romantic often sees his enemy in the successful bourgeois, the Philistine with a vested interest in social stability, political revolution is not always his goal. His admiration for the natural, the organic, which in art leads to the overthrow of the Classical rules and the development of a unique form for each work, in politics may lead him to subordinate the individual to the state and insist that the needs of the whole govern the activities of the parts.

Although these characteristics of Romanticism suggest something of its nature, they are far from exhaustive. The phenomenon is too diverse and too contradictory to admit of an easy definition. As Lovejoy suggested, "typical manifestations of the spiritual essence of Romanticism have been variously conceived to be a passion for moonlight, for red waistcoats, for Gothic churches . . . for talking exclusively about oneself, for hero-worship, for losing oneself in an ecstatic contemplation of nature."

Internet Resources
Fortunately, there are a number of truly outstanding sites devoted to the study of Romanticism as a European cultural phenomenon. While I have made no effort to locate all of these sites, the links below, most of which contain links themselves, will certainly get you where you need to go.

Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians (The British Library)
Romantic Circles
Romantic Literary Resources
Romantic Period Art
Romantics (Voice of the Shuttle)
Romanticism (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

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