The Romantic Era by Steven Kreis

The Romantic Era

Lecture 16: From The History Guide by Dr. Steven Kreis

The categories which it has become customary to use in distinguishing and classifying “movements” in literature or philosophy and in describing the nature of the significant transitions which have taken place in taste and in opinion, are far too rough, crude, undiscriminating — and none of them so hopelessly as the category “Romantic.”

—-Arthur O. Lovejoy, “On the Discriminations of Romanticisms” (1924)

"Wanderer above the sea of fog" by Charles David Friedrich, 1818, depicts a lone observer looking out over a fog-enshrouded landscape: a good example of the Romantic art style.

Charles David Friedrich, 1818, Wanderer above the sea of fog

Ask anyone on the street: “what is Romanticism?” and you will certainly receive some kind of reply. Everyone claims to know the meaning of the word romantic. The word conveys notions of sentiment and sentimentality, a visionary or idealistic lack of reality. It connotes fantasy and fiction. It has been associated with different times and with distant places: the island of Bali, the world of the Arabian Nights, the age of the troubadours and even Manhattan. Advertising links it with the effects of lipstick, perfume and soap. If we could ask the advertising genius who, fifty years ago, came up with the brilliant cigarette campaign, “blow some my way,” he may have responded with “it’s romantic.”

These meanings cause few problems in every day life — indeed, few of us wonder about the meaning of Romanticism at all. Yet we use the expression freely and casually (“a romantic, candle-lit dinner”). But literary historians and critics as well as European historians have been quarreling over the meaning of the word Romanticism for decades, as Lovejoy’s comment above makes abundantly clear. One of the problems is that the Romantics were liberals and conservatives, revolutionaries and reactionaries. Some were preoccupied with God, others were atheistic to the core. Some began their lives as devout Catholics, lived as ardent revolutionaries and died as staunch conservatives.

The expression Romantic gained currency during its own time, roughly 1780-1850. However, even within its own period of existence, few Romantics would have agreed on a general meaning. Perhaps this tells us something. To speak of a Romantic era is to identify a period in which certain ideas and attitudes arose, gained currency and in most areas of intellectual endeavor, became dominant. That is, they became the dominant mode of expression. Which tells us something else about the Romantics: expression was perhaps everything to them — expression in art, music, poetry, drama, literature and philosophy. Just the same, older ideas did not simply wither away. Romantic ideas arose both as implicit and explicit criticisms of 18th century Enlightenment thought (see Lecture 9). For the most part, these ideas were generated by a sense of inadequacy with the dominant ideals of the Enlightenment and of the society that produced them.

ROMANTICISM appeared in conflict with the Enlightenment. You could go as far as to say that Romanticism reflected a crisis in Enlightenment thought itself, a crisis which shook the comfortable 18th century philosophe out of his intellectual single-mindedness. The Romantics were conscious of their unique destiny. In fact, it was self-consciousness which appears as one of the keys elements of Romanticism itself.

The philosophes were too objective — they chose to see human nature as something uniform. The philosophes had also attacked the Church because it blocked human reason. The Romantics attacked the Enlightenment because it blocked the free play of the emotions and creativity. The philosophe had turned man into a soulless, thinking machine — a robot. In a comment typical of the Romantic thrust, William Hazlitt (1778-1830) asked, “For the better part of my life all I did was think.” And William Godwin (1756-1836), a contemporary of Hazlitt’s asked, “what shall I do when I have read all the books?” Christianity had formed a matrix into which medieval man situated himself. The Enlightenment replaced the Christian matrix with the mechanical matrix of Newtonian natural philosophy. For the Romantic, the result was nothing less than the demotion of the individual. Imagination, sensitivity, feelings, spontaneity and freedom were stifled — choked to death. Man must liberate himself from these intellectual chains.

Like one of their intellectual fathers, Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), the Romantics yearned to reclaim human freedom. Habits, values, rules and standards imposed by a civilization grounded in reason and reason only had to be abandoned. “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains,” Rousseau had written. Whereas the philosophes saw man in common, that is, as creatures endowed with Reason, the Romantics saw diversity and uniqueness. That is, those traits which set one man apart from another, and traits which set one nation apart from another. Discover yourself — express yourself, cried the Romantic artist. Play your own music, write your own drama, paint your own personal vision, live, love and suffer in your own way. So instead of the motto, “Sapere aude,” “Dare to know!” the Romantics took up the battle cry, “Dare to be!” The Romantics were rebels and they knew it. They dared to march to the tune of a different drummer — their own. The Romantics were passionate about their subjectivism, about their tendency toward introspection. Rousseau’s autobiography, The Confessions (1781), began with the following words:

I am commencing an undertaking, hitherto without precedent and which will never find an imitator. I desire to set before my fellows the likeness of a man in all the truth of nature, and that man myself. Myself alone! I know the feelings of my heart, and I know men. I am not made like any of those I have seen. I venture to believe that I am not made like any of those who are in existence. If I am not better, at least I am different.

Romanticism was the new thought, the critical idea and the creative effort necessary to cope with the old ways of confronting experience. The Romantic era can be considered as indicative of an age of crisis. Even before 1789, it was believed that the ancien regime seemed ready to collapse. Once the French Revolution entered its radical phase in August 1792 (see Lecture 13), the fear of political disaster also spread. King killing, Robespierre, the Reign of Terror, and the Napoleonic armies all signaled chaos — a chaos which would dominate European political and cultural life for the next quarter of a century.

Meanwhile, the Industrial Revolution — in full swing in England since the 1760s — spread to the Continent in the 1820s, thus adding entirely new social concerns (see Lecture 17). The old order — politics and the economy — seemed to be falling apart and hence for many Romantics, raised the threat of moral disaster as well. Men and women faced the need to build new systems of discipline and order, or, at the very least, they had to reshape older systems. The era was prolific in innovative ideas and new art forms. Older systems of thought had to come to terms with rapid and apparently unmanageable change.

In the midst of what has been called the Romantic Era, an era often portrayed as devoted to irrationality and “unreason,” the most purely rational social science — classical political economy — carried on the Enlightenment tradition. Enlightenment rationalism continued to be expressed in the language of political and economic liberalism. For example, Jeremy Bentham’s (1748-1832) radical critique of traditional politics became an active political movement known as utilitarianism. And revolutionary Jacobinism inundated English Chartism — an English working class movement of the 1830s and 40s. The political left on the Continent as well as many socialists, communists and anarchists also reflected their debt to the heritage of the Enlightenment.

The Romantics defined the Enlightenment as something to which they were clearly opposed. The philosophes oversimplified. But Enlightenment thought was and is not a simple and clearly identifiable thing. In fact, what has often been identified as the Enlightenment bore very little resemblance to reality. As successors to the Enlightenment, the Romantics were often unfair in their appreciation of the 18th century. They failed to recognize just how much they shared with the philosophes. In doing so, the Romantics were similar to Renaissance humanists in that both failed to perceive the meaning and importance of the cultural period which had preceded their own (see Lecture 4). The humanists, in fact, invented a “middle age” so as to define themselves more carefully. As a result, the humanists enhanced their own self-evaluation and prestige in their own eyes. The humanists foisted an error on subsequent generations of thinkers. Their error lay in their evaluation of the past as well as in their simple failure to apprehend or even show a remote interest in the cultural heritage of the medieval world. Both aspects of the error are important.

With the Romantics, it shows first how men make an identity for themselves by defining an enemy, making clear what they oppose, thus making life into a battle. Second, it is evident that factual, accurate, subtle understanding makes the enemy mere men. Even before 1789, the Romantics opposed the superficiality of the conventions of an artificial, urban and aristocratic society. They blurred distinctions between its decadent, fashionable Christianity or unemotional Deism and the irreligion or anti-clericalism of the philosophes. The philosophes, expert in defining themselves in conflict with their enemy — the Church — helped to create the mythical ungodly Enlightenment many Romantics so clearly opposed.

It was during the French Revolution and for fifty or sixty years afterward that the Romantics clarified their opposition to the Enlightenment. This opposition was based on equal measures of truth and fiction. The Romantics rejected what they thought the philosophes represented. And over time, the Romantics came to oppose and criticize not only the Enlightenment, but also ideas derived from it and the men who were influenced by it.

The period from 1793 to 1815 was a period of European war. War, yes, but also revolutionary combat — partisanship seemed normal. Increasingly, however, the Romantics rejected those aspects of the French Revolution — the Terror and Napoleon — which seemed to them to have sprung from the heads of the philosophes themselves. For instance, William Wordsworth (1770-1850) was living in Paris during the heady days of 1789 — he was, at the time, only 19 years old. In his autobiographical poem, The Prelude, he reveals his experience of the first days of the Revolution. Wordsworth read his poem to Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) in 1805—I might add that The Prelude is epic in proportion as it weighs in at eight thousand lines. By 1805, the bliss that carried Wordsworth and Coleridge in the 1790s, had all but vanished.

But for some Romantics, aristocrats, revolutionary armies, natural rights and constitutionalism were not real enemies. There were new enemies on the horizon, especially after the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815). The Romantics concentrated their attack on the heartlessness of bourgeois liberalism as well as the nature of urban industrial society. Industrial society brought new problems: soulless individualism, economic egoism, utilitarianism, materialism and the cash nexus. Industrial society came under attack by new critics: the utopian socialists and communists. But there were also men like Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) and Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) who identified the threat of egoism as the chief danger of their times. Egoism dominated the bourgeoisie, especially in France and in England. Higher virtues and social concerns were subsumed by the cash nexus and crass materialism of an industrial capitalist society. Artists and intellectuals attacked the philistinism of the bourgeoisie for their lack of taste and their lack of an higher morality. Ironically, the brunt of their attack fell on the social class which had produced the generation of Romantics.

Romanticism reveals the persistence of Enlightenment thought, the Romantic’s definition of themselves and a gradual awareness of a new enemy. The shift to a new enemy reminds us that the Romantic Age was also an eclectic age. The Enlightenment was no monolithic structure — neither was Romanticism, however we define it. Ideas of an age seldom exist as total systems. Our labels too easily let us forget that past ideas form the context in which new ideas are developed and expressed. Intellectuals do manage to innovate and their innovations are oftentimes not always recombinations of what they have embraced in their education. Intellectual and geographic contexts differ from state to state — even though French culture seemed to have dominated the Continent during the early decades of the 19th century. England is the obvious exception. Germany is another example — the movement known as Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) — was an independent cultural development.

National variations were enhanced when, under the direct effect of the Napoleonic wars, boundaries were closed and the easy international interchange of ideas was inhibited. But war was not the only element that contributed to the somewhat inhibited flow of ideas. Profound antagonism and the desire to create autonomous cultures was also partially responsible. This itself grew out of newly found nationalist ideologies which were indeed characteristic of Romanticism itself. And within each nation state, institutional and social differences provided limits to the general assimilation of a clearly defined set of ideas. In France, for example, the academies were strong and during the Napoleonic era, censorship was common. Artists and intellectuals alike were prevented from innovating or adopting new ideas. In Germany, on the other hand, things were quite different. The social structure, the heavy academism and specific institutional traits blocked any possibility of learning or expressing new modes of thought.

Most important were the progressive changes in the potential audience artists and intellectuals now faced — most of them now had to depend upon that audience. Where the audience was very small, as in Austria and parts of Germany, the results often ranged between the extremes of great openness to rigid conservatism. Where the audience was steadily growing, as in France or England, and where urbanization and the growth of a middle class was transforming the expectations of the artist and intellectual, there was room for experiment, innovation and oftentimes, disastrous failure. Here, artists and intellectuals could no longer depend upon aristocratic patronage. Popularity among the new and powerful middle class audience became a rite of passage.

At the same time, intellectuals criticized the tasteless and unreceptive philistine bourgeoisie. Ironically, they were criticizing the same class and the same mentality from which they themselves had emerged and which had supported them. In this respect, the Romantic age was similar to the age of Enlightenment. A free press and careers open to talent provided possibilities of competitive innovation. This led to new efforts to literally train audiences to be receptive to the productions of artists and intellectuals. Meanwhile, literary hacks and Grub Street writers produced popular pot boilers for the masses. All these characteristics placed limits upon the activities of the Romantics. These limits could not be ignored. In fact, these limits often exerted pressures that can be identified as causes of the Romantic movement itself.

There were direct, immediate and forceful events that many British and European Romantics experienced in their youth. The French Revolution was a universal phenomenon that affected them all. And the Napoleonic wars after 1799 also influenced an entire generation of European writers, composers and artists. Those who were in their youth in the 1790s felt a chasm dividing them from an earlier, pre-revolutionary generation. Those who had seen Napoleon seemed different and felt different from those who were simply too young to understand. The difference lay in a great discrepancy in the quality of their experience. Great European events, such as the Revolution and Napoleon, gave identity to generations and made them feel as one — a shared experience. As a consequence, the qualities of thought and behavior in 1790 was drastically different from what it was in 1820. In the Romantic era, men and women felt these temporal and experiential differences consciously and intensely. It is obvious, I suppose, that only after Napoleon could the cults of the hero, of hero worship and of the genius take full form. And only after 1815 could youth complain that their time no longer offered opportunities for heroism or greatness — only their predecessors had known these opportunities.

The intellectual historian or historian of ideas always faces problems. Questions of meaning, interpretation and an acceptance of a particular Zeitgeist, or climate of opinion or world view is serious but difficult stuff. Although we frequently use words like Enlightenment or Romanticism to describe intellectual or perhaps cultural events, these expressions sometimes cause more harm than good. There is, for instance, no 18th century document, no perfect exemplar or ideal type, to use Max Weber’s word, which can be called “enlightened.” There is, unfortunately, no perfect document or ideal type of which we may pronounce, “this is Romantic.”

We have seen that one way to define the Romantics is to distinguish them from the philosophes. But, for both the philosophes and the Romantics, Nature was accepted as a general standard. Nature was natural — and this supplied standards for beauty and for morality. The Enlightenment’s appreciation of Nature was, of course, derived wholly from Isaac Newton. The physical world was orderly, explicable, regular, logical. It was, as we are all now convinced, a Nature subject to laws which could be expressed with mathematical certainty. Universal truths — like natural rights — were the object of science and of philosophy. And the uniformity of Nature permitted a knowledge which was rapidly accumulating as a consequence of man’s rational capacity and the use of science to penetrate the mysteries of nature. The Enlightenment defined knowledge in a Lockian manner—that is, a knowledge based on sense impressions. This was an environmentalist psychology, if you will, a psychology in which men know only what their sense impressions allowed their faculty of reason to understand.

The Enlightenment was rationalist — it glorified human reason. Reason illustrated the power of analysis — Reason was the power of associating like experiences in order to generalize about them inductively. Reason was a common human possession — it was held by all men. Even American “savages” were endowed with reason, hence the 18th century emphasis on “common sense,” and the “noble savage.” Common sense — revealed by reason — would admit a groundwork for a common morality. As nature was studied in order to discover its universal aspects, men began to accept that what was most worth knowing and what was therefore most valuable, was what they had in common with one another. Society, then, became an object of science. Society revealed self-evident truths about human nature — self-evident truths about natural rights.

Social and political thought was individualistic and atomistic. As the physical universe was ultimately machinelike, so social organization could be fashioned after the machine. Science pronounced what society ought to become in view of man’s natural needs. These needs were not being fulfilled by the past — for this reason, the medieval matrix and the ancien regime inhibited man’s progress. The desire was to shape institutions, to change men and to produce a better society — knowledge, morality and human happiness. The intention was at once cosmopolitan and humanitarian.

The Romantics felt all the opinions of the Enlightenment were fraught with dangerous errors and oversimplifications. Romanticism may then be considered as a critique of the inadequacies of what it held to be Enlightened thought. The critique of the Romantics — sometime open, sometimes hidden — can be seen as a new study of the bases or knowledge and of the whole scientific enterprise. It rejected a science based on physics — physics was inadequate to describe the reality of experience. “O for a life of sensations rather than of thoughts,” wrote John Keats (1795-1821). And William Blake (1757-1827) admonished us all to “Bathe in the waters of life.” And Keats again, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

The Romantic universe was expanding, evolving, becoming — it was organic, it was alive. The Romantics sought their soul in the science of life, not the science of celestial mechanics. They moved from planets to plants. The experience was positively exhilarating, explosive and liberating — liberation from the soulless, materialistic, thinking mechanism that was man. The 18th century had created it. The Romantics found it oppressive , hence the focus on liberation. Listen to the way Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) put it in Prometheus Unbound:

The joy, the triumph, the delight, the madness!
The boundless, overflowing, bursting gladness,
The vaporous exultation not to be confined!
Ha! Ha! The animation of delight
Which wraps me, like an atmosphere of light,
And bears me as a cloud is borne by its own wind.

The Romantics returned God to Nature — the age revived the unseen world, the supernatural, the mysterious, the world of medieval man. It is no accident that the first gothic novel appears early in the Romantic Age. Nature came to be viewed historically. The world was developing, it was a world of continuous process, it was a world in the process of becoming. And this continuous organic process could only be understood through historical thought. And here we have come almost full circle to the views expressed by Giambattista Vico (see Lecture 10) a century earlier. This is perhaps the single most revolutionary aspect of the Romantic Age. An admiration for all the potency and diversity of living nature superseded a concern for the discovery of its universal traits. In a word, the Romantics embraced relativism. They did not seek universal abstract laws as Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) had. Instead, they saw history as a process of unfolding, a becoming. Was not this the upshot of what G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831) had argued in his philosophy of history? And look at the time frame: Kant – 1780s, Hegel – 1820s and 30s.

The Romantics sought Nature’s glorious diversity of detail — especially its moral and emotional relation to mankind. On this score, the Romantics criticized the 18th century. The philosophe was cold, mechanical, logical and unfeeling. There was no warmth in the heart. For the Romantics, warmth of heart was found and indeed enhanced by a communion with Nature. The heart has reasons that Reason is not equipped to understand. The heart was a source of knowledge — the location of ideas “felt” as sensations rather than thoughts. Intuition was equated with that which men feel strongly. Men could learn by experiment or by logical process—but men could learn more in intuitive flashes and feelings, by learning to trust their instincts. The Romantics distrusted calculation and stressed the limitations of scientific knowledge. The rationality of science fails to apprehend the variety and fullness of reality. Rational analysis destroys the naïve experience of the stream of sensations and in this violation, leads men into error.

One power possessed by the Romantic, a power distinct and superior to reason, was imagination. Imagination might apprehend immediate reality and create in accordance with it. And the belief that the uncultured—that is, the primitive — know not merely differently but best is an example of how the Romantics reinterpreted the irrational aspect of reality — the Imagination. The Romantics did not merely say that there were irrational ways of intuiting reality. They rejected materialism and utilitarianism as types of personal behavior and as philosophies. They sought regeneration — a regeneration we can liken to that of the medieval heretic or saint. They favored selfless enthusiasm, an enthusiasm which was an expression of faith and not as the product of utilitarian calculation. Emotion — unbridled emotion — was celebrated irrespective of its consequences.

The 18th century life of mind was incomplete. The Romantics opted for a life of the heart. Their relativism made them appreciative of diversity in man and in nature. There are no universal laws. There are certainly no laws which would explain man. The philosophe congratulated himself for helping to destroy the ancien regime. And today, we can perhaps say, “good job!” But after all the destruction, after the ancient idols fell, and after the dust had cleared, there remained nothing to take its place. In stepped the Romantics who sought to restore the organic quality of the past, especially the medieval past, the past so detested by the pompous, powdered-wig philosophe.

Truth and beauty were human attributes. A truth and beauty which emanated from the poet’s soul and the artist’s heart. If the poets are, as Shelley wrote in 1821, the “unacknowledged legislator’s of the world,” it was world of fantasy, intuition, instinct and emotion. It was a human world.



Dr. Steven Kreis is a highly rated professor of history and military studies at American Public University. This article is reprinted here for educational purposes, with the permission of the author who retains copyright to this work. Many thanks to Dr. Steven Kreis for graciously granting us permission to reproduce this lecture, which originally appeared on his History Guide website.


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