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CHAPTER 7 - ROMANTICISM

AN INTRODUCTION TO ROMANTICISM

"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

Picture of Immanuel Kant.
Immanuel Kant. (7.1)

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!(1)

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.

Romanticism and the French Revolution

Picture of the fall of the Bastille.
The fall of the Bastille. (7.2)

The political upheavals of the French Revolution and the violent reaction against it by all of Europe's threatened monarchies shattered the illusion that change would be peaceful. Historical events had to be interpreted and reinterpreted as rapidly as they occurred. At the outbreak of the French Revolution, enlightened intellectuals relished the fall of the Bastille, a symbol of the power of kings and aristocrats to have ordinary people imprisoned on a personal whim or for mere revenge. The idea that a tyrannical king, Louis XVI, could be forced to yield power inspired new democratic hopes. By adopting "The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens" in August 1789, the members of the French National Assembly seemed to have achieved the ultimate realization of the Enlightenment's aspirations.

Picture representing the Reign of Terror.
Reign of Terror. (7.3)

The actual course of the Revolution, however, yielded doubt, tragic resignation, confusion, and many political about-faces. More moderate supporters became alarmed by what they saw as the upsurge of the uneducated mob, whose years of suffering at the hands of the social system were not easily appeased. The severed head of Louis XVI, executed in 1793, gave a new image of revolution which, unlike the fall of the Bastille, challenged centuries of European reverence for royalty and aristocratic birth. During the horrible period of violence known as the Reign of Terror, in the name of true democracy Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794) and the Jacobin leadership of the Revolution purged every group that challenged their supremacy, designating them enemies of the people. Could the very principles of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity themselves become tyrannical? Writers and thinkers were faced with unprecedented questions and were pushed to make decisions or take stands with unpredictable consequences.

In the larger span from 1789 until 1850, deeper changes in the social structure kept complicating the context in which ideas, poems, and novels were produced -- the disruption of rural life in England, the growth of industry and urbanization, the changing role of slavery in the colonies.Writers responded in complex ways to these developments. The feminist and social reformer Mary Wollstonecraft used her writings to advocate social change. Jane Austen used hers to record the rituals and conversations of the English gentry whose stable world was being challenged from all sides. William Wordsworth (1770-1850) began his career by associating the plight of poor cottagers and the aims of the French Revolution, resisting capitalism and championing democracy; by the end, he had become an upholder of deeply conservative values, despising democracy and yearning for an earlier era.

Another social process directly affected writers. The previously homogeneous reading public was changing, overturning the confidence the eighteenth-century "men of letters" had in their social role. New segments of society pressed for literacy or for representation in the press, giving rise to a demand for new forms of popular literature, including romance and gothic novels. Moreover, radical demands that politics include all the people -- peasants and laborers as well as businessmen and aristocrats -- challenged even the most enlightened writers' sense of their task and purpose.

Rousseau and Goethe

Picture of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau. (7.4)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe are two writers whose profound effect made them central to Romanticism throughout Europe, even though neither would have considered himself a Romantic. Some elements of Romanticism begin with the highly original inventions of the many-faceted Rousseau (1712-1778). For instance, his political treatise, The Social Contract (1762), broke new ground by establishing human rights, civil liberties, and democratic politics in the modern sense. In fact, that book was credited frequently -- often by Rousseau's enemies -- with causing the French Revolution!

Rousseau's literary work had equally wide-ranging impact. His Confessions (1781) influenced the entire era's idea of autobiography through its new emphasis on the unique importance of each individual self. And his two major novels, Julie: or The New Héloise (1761) and Émile (1762), set patterns for Romantic thinking about love and education, Julie by linking romantic passion to the influence of the natural world, Émile by insisting on the importance and the innocence of childhood. Yet other Romantics, including the major advocates of Romanticism in Germany, detested Rousseau and wholly rejected his political ideas, his public image and reputation, as well as his literary achievements.

Picture of Illustration from Rousseau's Emile.
Illustration from Rousseau's "Emile". (7.5)

In Germany, the role played by Goethe (1749-1832) was so central to this period that there the era is called the Age of Goethe. Among the historical changes at work in this period was the emergence of new forms of individuality. This development generally is reflected in the Romantic preoccupation with the self, including the interest in autobiography and lyric as modes of writing. Like Rousseau, Goethe had a direct role in creating the kind of literary representations that could embody these new forms of individuality. His first novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), virtually invented the Romantic hero, who differs markedly from previous heroic types. Werther's heroism arises from an individuality that sets feelings and values above the mundane demands of work, social convention, and sexual morality. The story ends tragically, as Werther cannot in actuality overcome the obstacles of the "real world," but even there Goethe made a radical point by treating Werther's suicide sympathetically and as an individual right.(2)

Picture of Goethe on his Italian journey, 1786-1788; oil painting 
      by J.H.W Tischbein.
Goethe on his Italian journey, 1786-1788. Oil painting by J.H.W Tischbein. (7.6)

In his next novel, Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (1795-1796), Goethe invented what became the most widely developed form of the novel in Europe, the Bildungsroman (roman = novel, Bildung = education, formation). This narrative form gives expression to the whole process of maturing and of discovering a vocation as it was taking shape, for men, in the eighteenth-century middle classes. Here the hero, in contrast to Werther, makes great adjustments in his expectations, turns his talents to an appropriate vocation, and successfully adapts his personality to reality. Goethe's Faust (Part I, 1808; Part II, 1833) explores yet another type of individuality, the virtually mythic figure who seeks boundless experience and values striving over possession, aspiration over satisfaction. All three of Goethe's characters embody a new culture that sanctioned individuality while putting whole new stresses on individuals themselves.


Footnotes

(1) Kant's Political Writings, ed. Hans Reiss, trans. H.B. Nisbet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), pp. 54-60.

(2) Goethe is a great classicist as well as one of the founders of Romanticism. In demonstrating sympathy for Werther's suicide, he appeals in a modern sense to the rights of the individual while also reflecting the ancient Roman notion that suicide provided a dignified way to preserve one's honor in the face of otherwise untenable alternatives.