The Romantic Period (1800-1830) What is Romanticism?

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The Romantic Period (1800-1830)

What is Romanticism?

The philosophical background (18th century)

Three major movements of thought lie behind the appearance of Romanticism in the 19th century:

a) Conservatism

b) Revolutionism

c) Utilitarianism


The most influential Conservative thinker was Edmund BURKE (1729-1797), a politician and a political theorist. The work in which he expanded on his conservative thoughts was Reflections on the French Revolution. His key word is continuity. He was committed to institutions that had developed through ages, proving that if an institution stood the test of time, it should not be abolished. He accepted that there are changes in the society, and does accepts change if that change involved evolution (development). However, he refused revolutionary change. Later in their career, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Walter Scott also became conservatives. The wish of Conservatives is to maintain the mythical and idealised “merry old England”. In a parliamentary speech in 1790, he said the following:

Since the House had been prorogued in the summer much work was done in France. The French had shewn themselves the ablest architects of ruin that had hitherto existed in the world. In that very short space of time they had completely pulled down to the ground, their monarchy; their church; their nobility; their law; their revenue; their army; their navy; their commerce; their arts; and their manufactures...[there was a danger of] an imitation of the excesses of an irrational, unprincipled, proscribing, confiscating, plundering, ferocious, bloody and tyrannical democracy...[in religion] the danger of their example is no longer from intolerance, but from Atheism; a foul, unnatural vice, foe to all the dignity and consolation of mankind; which seems in France, for a long time, to have been embodied into a faction, accredited, and almost avowed.”


The main representatives of the revolutionary idea are Thomas PAINE (1737-1809) and William GODWIN (1756-1836)

Paine was an ardent critic of Burke, he called himself a professional revolutionist. He confessed that “My country is the world and my religion is to do good”. His ideology was based on the equality of mankind, and he favoured the pure state of nature. He was a fervent believer of the idea of social contract of Rousseau. Thomas Paine’s reply to Burke’s Reflections… was the “Rights of Man”. He argued that human rights originate in Nature, thus, rights cannot be granted via political charter, because that implies that rights are legally revocable, hence, would be privileges:

It is a perversion of terms to say that a charter gives rights. It operates by a contrary effect — that of taking rights away. Rights are inherently in all the inhabitants; but charters, by annulling those rights, in the majority, leave the right, by exclusion, in the hands of a few . . . They . . . consequently are instruments of injustice.

The fact, therefore, must be that the individuals, themselves, each, in his own personal and sovereign right, entered into a compact with each other to produce a government: and this is the only mode in which governments have a right to arise, and the only principle on which they have a right to exist.
Godwin was also a radical, even an anarchist thinker. He held two fundamental theses:
1) the human character is shaped by environment (reflects a deterministic view). Godwin rejects the idea of free will. He also asserts that all man are equal in a moral sense, man is essentially good, thus we have the right to have the same opportunities in life. The conclusion is that the environment should be changed, because it is an obstacle for social equality.

2) reasons should govern man: Reason can destroy all evil.

His work that reflects all these views is entitled An Enquiry Concerning Political Jusitce (1793)


The most prominent expounders of the utilitarian idea is Jeremy BENTHAM (1748-1832) and John Stuart MILL (1806-1873). (Godwin also embraced these ideas.) They argued that man is basically an animal, who is to gain pleasure and avoid pain. If society wants to do good, then all the legislation should be based on the maximal satisfaction for individual and for mankind. The government should guarantee this. (“The greatest happiness for the greatest number”.) If there is something that can give pleasure to people, whatever it is, the government should support it.

Historical and political background

Romanticism is basically middle-class movement (Byron is an exception): Keats, Shelley and most of the Romantic poets came from this background. The reason for this was that towards the middle and end of the 18th century, middle class was on the rise (which also facilitated the birth of the novel). The increased luxury and wealth inspired a desire for the unusual, for the different, which Romanticism provided.

The Romantic age was the first to feel the negative effects of the Industrial Revolution. As soon as machines were introduced to industry, many people lost their jobs. The flourishing providing luxury stood in contrast with the negative aspects of industrialisation, which created a profound dissatisfaction.
The social transformation of the 19th century also inspired Romanticism. Earlier the society was closed, in the society, very few decisions were to be made concerning the whole of the society (the peasants could not influence many people). In the “open society” many people had the right to vote, to set up manufactures, start business etc. which certainly affected many people. The society became open to the individuals and individualism. This openness was to be expressed first in Romanticism. In Byron’s case, however, this individual openness led to pessimism: what happens if the individual makes a bad decision? If something goes wrong, that also can affect everyone. There was a realisation that individuals had great responsibility.
Ideologically, the French Revolution also had an enormous influence on the birth of Romanticism. This was the first such occasion that included a whole continent (Napoleonic Wars). Also, the French Revolution promised a major breakthrough towards an egalitarian society, but in a few years it turned into dictatorship and bloodshed (the revolutionaries started to execute each other), and what started as the abolishment of monarchy led to a new kind of monarchy in about 10 years (Napoleon crowned himself Emperor in 1804). The huge disappointment in the failed revolution inspired many Romantic poets.

The main features of Romantic art and literature

  1. Medievalism: An interest in the glorious past, an essentially false recreation of the Middle Ages as the Romantics imagined it. The Middle Ages came to be seen as a source of inspiration and imitation in literature, painting and architecture. It motivated the Gothic revival (which goes back to the 18th century), an interest in settings and events that suggested obscurity, something ancient, darker, fearsome and mysterious, in general, things that characterised the period before the glorious renaissance of arts. Gothic architecture (see the Parliament buildings of both England and Hungary), the Gothic novel, the pre-Raphaelite movement, numerous reworkings of the Arthurian legend, James MacPherson’s false Ossian poems, Walter Scott’s antiquarian interest are all part of this trend.

  1. Orientalism: Not exactly what we mean today. While Medievalism sought to draw inspiration from an idealised past, Orientalism would have liked to do this in space. For the Romantics “Oriental” was not always Japan or China, but everything that was supposed to be an exotic, remote place. They were not really interested in the wise past of the orient, but just in the exotic element. See for instance Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, Byron’s “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” “Don Juan” or “Giaour”, and the countless “exotic” settings and characters in fiction.

  1. Primitivism: An interest in a less advanced stage of civilisation and the idea that it brings greater happiness to the people. Morally, savage conditions produce better people (think of Kipling’s Jungle Book or the idealisation of the countryside, see Wordsworth), who live in innocent, primitive conditions, while urban civilisation corrupts and distorts man.

  1. Anti-intellectualism is also a key feature of Romanticism, based on the Anglo-American distrust of the logical and belief in common sense (going back to Locke and Hobbes). The central idea is that certain aspects of life may not be explained on a purely rational basis, some sort of obscurity is always needed.

  1. Emotionalism: The enjoyment of emotion for its own sake (not for didactic purposes as it was done in the neo-Classic age). For the Romantics, a poem could be written about a sort of feeling (happiness), without further justification.

  1. Confessionalism, lyricism: The unprecedented occurrence that tne major subject for the poet became himself, who reveals his own ideas to the reader. The main characteristic of poetry in this period is that it is mainly lyrical poetry (not narrative), expresses one or several particular, subjective emotions.

  1. Originality: Up to the end of the Classical period, originality was not required, simply the way of formulating the stories or poems was important, how the poet can use the well-established classical devices. In Romanticism, originality becomes required. The main reason for this was the heightened sense of individuality and the fact that Romantics were expected to fulfil the demands of the middle class: there was no need to refer to earlier traditions, writers had to invent their own style.

  1. Belief in the purgative (cleaning) purpose of the art: according to Aristotle, the purpose of tragedy is the purgation of the audience through pity and fear (catharsis). This changes in Romanticism inasmuch as the reason for writing is the purgation of the writer himself, a kind of self-analysis that uncovers the hidden depths of the soul.

  1. The love of Nature: Of course, Nature was written about in every literary period: very often, however, Nature meant a convenient, decorative background, or the justification of the perfectness of divine creation. The Neoclassical period tried to remove every supernatural element from Nature, always wrote about it without human beings (see Neo-classical landscapes!). For the Romantics: external nature and human nature cannot be divided. Nature reflects a state of mind. Human nature corresponds to nature outside. Nature is regarded as a teacher, a guide, a moral standard. Cities, on the contrary, are seen as not natural environment for human beings, the places of alienation, corruption and vice.

  1. Humanitarianism: This, again, is not a new idea, since Humanitarianism was frequently made use of by the church. The Romantic idea, however, does not derive from this religious stance, but it claims that it is our duty to provide the minimum of physical necessities and maximum of human opportunities to everyone. An institutionalised support to the helpless should always derive from the state, not from the church.

  1. The belief in progress is based on Hegel’s idea of history (dialectics). The basic idea is that man is constantly progressing towards a better future.In this sense, revolutions may be, time to time, necessary to promote development. See Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”

  1. Democracy: All the major Romantics went through a Republican period in their lives A republic is always based on human equality, which is not the invention of the Romantic period. The Romantics, however, added the emotional aspect to this.

Caspar David Friedrich: Wanderer above

the Sea of Fog (1818)
Caspar David Friedrich: The Chalk Cliffs

of Rügen (1818)

John Constable: The Hay Wain (1819)
William Turner: Steamer in a Snowstorm (1842)
file:john henry fuseli - the nightmare.jpg

John Henry Fuseli: The Nightmare (1781)

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