An Introduction to Romanticism

 Originally Appeared in: Contexts and Comparisons: A Student Guide to the Great Works Courses | Published: 1991

“Romanticism” is a notoriously difficult term to define. The word itself apparently derives from the narrative form called the “romance,” a kind of fiction that dealt with improbable and extraordinary events. Associated with medieval tales of chivalry written in the Romance languages, French in particular, by the seventeenth century the term “romantic” signified a tendency toward the imaginary or the fabulous, and suggested a rejection of the merely factual. The word persisted as the usual label for the major trends in European literature between 1760 and 1850. Critics today continue to designate this era the “Romantic period,” a time when writers seemed preoccupied with certain recurrent themes, particularly, the self, nature, and imagination, and when the crucial historical event of the period, the French Revolution of 1789, profoundly affected every literary project and shaped every writer’s cultural, moral, and political values.

Nonetheless, the writers we confidently call Romantics or those we typically consider the major authors of the Romantic period, actually espoused various philosophies, held different political outlooks, and wrote in widely divergent styles. Moreover, many of the writers in question changed their own views radically in the course of their careers. 

Is it then possible, or even desirable, to link writing from so many languages and countries (Germany, France, England, Scotland, Italy, Spain, Russia, the United States) across a ninety-year span, especially when the writers’ ideas and styles do not fit neatly into a single world view? In this chapter, we will point to some of the shared characteristics that justify the linkage, recognizing all the while that European literature from 1760 to 1850 presents a special challenge to critics and historians of culture. Do not expect a unified intellectual and artistic movement. Instead, let us view Romanticism as a range of responses to similar social and aesthetic problems, as a set of competing historical interpretations trying to make sense of complex political and social changes, and as a cluster of stylistic innovations whose precise meaning always lies in the literary and the historical context the writer was trying to affect.

Romanticism and the Enlightenment

Romantic writers shaped their beliefs and their efforts in response to the Enlightenment, the intellectual movement that ripened throughout the eighteenth century. The Enlightenment, as we have seen, valued scientific inquiry over religious doctrine, based political and philosophical discussion on appeals to reason rather than faith or tradition, and valued the judgment of individual conscience over religious or secular authority. The Enlightenment held out the promise of a society that would be rationally organized on the basis of the deliberation of free individuals.

Intellectuals throughout the eighteenth century gravitated toward the ideal of a society shaped by reasoning and the free exchange of ideas partly because they made their living as a social group from writing, teaching, and preaching. The enlightenment of society would require just the practices and skills that intellectuals themselves possessed. In assessing the powerful new ideals and values that were articulated in the name of Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), the leading German philosopher of the time, wrote an influential essay entitled “An Answer to the Question: ‘What is Enlightenment?'” (1784). His definition sounds the crucial theme:

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! [Dare to be wise!] Have courage to use your own undertanding!

Kant knew that radical new values were embodied in this idea, especially since the Enlightenment he advocated would require “the freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters.” Whether it was a question of the arts, the sciences, religious doctrine and church organization, or indeed laws and legislation, there had to be freedom of conscience and of speech. Such freedom, once institutionalized and exercised, was bound to challenge the power of the church officials, aristocrats, and monarchs in whose hands authority had resided for centuries. 

Kant nevertheless was convinced that this freedom would foster Enlightenment without actually tearing at the deeper social fabric and cultural traditions. He believed any changes prompted by free discussion and rational decision would be gradual and peaceful. How could he advance such radical ideas and yet expect only harmonious change?

First, his radical idea of freedom also contained a more restrictive clause, for this new freedom was to be exercised only by those he deemed properly prepared: “By the public use of one’s own reason I mean that use which anyone may make of it as a man of learning addressing the entire reading public.” Kant expected debate to be conducted by civic-minded intellectuals addressing a literate public; while he viewed this process the basis for universal discussion, the “public” in 1784 could not in fact have included peasants and laborers, who made up the bulk of the society’s population but were not taught to read and write. Nor did Kant consider women potential active participants. The ideas for change would, in short, be generated by a homogeneous social group and would be addressed only to the middle and upper strata of society.
A second source of Kant’s confidence in gradual, peaceful change was his commitment to the monarchy of King Frederick II (the Great), King of Prussia. Once again his radical assertions were tempered by orderly expectations. In his radical voice, Kant spurned all reliance on mere tradition to justify laws or structures of government, advancing his most democratic theme: “To test whether any particular measure can be agreed upon as a law for a people, we need only ask whether a people could impose such a law upon itself.” At the same time, though, Kant fully expected peaceful transformations and an obedient populace. The people would not actually impose laws on themselves. Only the monarch would. In Kant’s view, an enlightened monarch would find guidance in the public’s enlightened discussion. The enlightened monarch could then, according to Kant, say, “Argue as much as you like and about whatever you like, but obey!”

Eighteenth-century writers were deeply attracted to the double prospect of radical freedom of speech combined with peaceful social transformation. Their attitudes were further reinforced by the relative homogeneity of their own reading public. They really were creating a realm of free discussion among equals. But all that changed after 1789….

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