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Romanticism - A Rough Guide

Rebekah Owens and Andrew Anderson's engaging overview of


the period we call Romantic highlights key themes, interests
and conventions - and debunks a few myths.
The Age of Reason and the Hunger after Truth
Keats's words provide a loose definition of Romanticism. What you have, in essence, is
the Age of Reason represented in his phrase 'hunger after truth'. Keats's complaint
about the pursuit of knowledge reflects the early eighteenth-century concerns with
science, reason, and intellectualism when it was believed that human nature could be
subject to scientific analysis. It was thought that laws could be discerned about humanity
in much the same way as there were laws of physics, or chemistry. It was a response to
human nature that was mechanical and impersonal. The reaction to this, the movement
known as Romanticism, is embodied in Keats's idea that an artist should 'delight in
sensation'. He considered that the artist should be less concerned with scientific
accuracy and should be open to different 'sensations'. In other words, a life of feelings.
'Feeling' is the key word here. Or, more correctly 'sensibility'. Keats's words reflect a
growing fashion originating in the later eighteenth-century for the expression of emotion.
During the Age of Reason, anyone writing prose or poetry had been required to follow
the Classical form - the example provided by the Greek and Latin authors. Compositions
were expected to be balanced, restrained, and expressed according to set rules and
conventions. At the end of the seventeenth-century a number of publications reflected
the growing interest in the expression of feeling, something that went against these
rules. A key work is Henry MacKenzie's The Man of Feeling (1771), which relates the
adventures of a young man, called Harley, who encounters a number of destitute men
and women. His compassion leads him to spend a considerable amount of time weeping
copiously at the plight of the unfortunates that he meets.
It is important to recall that what in this story comes across as 'schmaltz' was, at that
time, quite new. What this novel indicates is that there was a change from following
superimposed objective rules to create a work of art, to describing the subjective
experience of an individual's emotional response. Harley's shedding tears was a sign of
his sensitivity, not a nervous breakdown. The art in this novel lay in the expression of
something personal, spontaneous - even irrational. Such descriptions of emotional
responses became popular as can be seen by the response to Johann Wolfgang von
Goethe's 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. Its torrid account of unrequited
love, gloomy self-reflection, meditative moonlight walks, and suicide made the book a

bestseller. It inspired young men to tour the places frequented by Werther and allegedly
led to a bout of copycat suicides.

Lyrical Ballads - a Landmark Text


The Man of Feeling was also notable in that its protagonist is a fervent devotee of
Nature. This use of Nature as a benchmark of emotion is one of the most well-known
themes of Romantic literature. The landmark text in British Romanticism for this is the
1798 work, Lyrical Ballads by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The
importance of this volume in literary history cannot be overstated. For an early
eighteenth-century artist, their 'hunger after truth' meant that the study of Nature had a
rationalist bias and was expressed using a prescriptive model of language. For the
Romantics, the search for Truth through the contemplation of Nature should be
conducted through the senses, encapsulated in Keats's phrase 'Beauty is Truth, Truth
Beauty'. That is, Truth could be discovered through the contemplation of a more
emotional response to Nature.

From Love of Nature to a Love of Humanity


This led to a revolutionary concept in Lyrical Ballads. Such sensory experiences had to
be shared in a way that revealed their truth to the reader. Both Wordsworth and
Coleridge considered the best expression of such feelings was in the use of vernacular
language. The Introduction to the work, describing the intention to write poems in the
language of the everyday, acts as a kind of early manifesto of Romanticism's response
to Nature in which poetry is described as 'the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings'.
As a native of the Lake District, Wordsworth was able to explore the Cumbrian
landscape and his later work equated Nature with nurturing noble and worthy feelings,
feelings which, in turn, would foster a love of humanity.

Self-obsession and the Byronic Hero


This does not mean that we should confuse Romanticism with a prototype of a New Age
philosophy, all barefoot in the grass, eco-friendly tree-huggers. Not all of this emphasis
on subjectivity, these variations on being a 'Man of Feeling', necessarily led to worthy
reflections on 'the still, sad music of humanity' stimulated by the grandness of
landscapes. Such a preoccupation with emotional self-expression could be internalised.
In Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812) the protagonist was a variation of the Man
of Feeling, but much more self-obsessed. This was a character-type that became known
as the 'Byronic hero'. The Childe is not given to tearfully assisting destitute individuals.
He is the mysterious outsider, brooding, temperamental and uncannily attractive, his
feelings both enigmatically hidden, but with depths of passion obviously seething within.
He is intelligent and charismatic, but world weary, a despiser of conventional social
norms and, as a result, is an outcast from society.

From the Natural to the Supernatural


Writing about an outcast allows an author to use such a protagonist to reflect on what it
means to be human. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) epitomises this, as explored in
the emotional journey of Frankenstein's creature. It is not the kind of 'emotional journey'
that carries someone through The X Factor; more of a philosophical consideration of
how feelings make us human. The creature, as he learns and grows throughout the
novel, is frequently 'borne away' by sensations, such as loneliness, rage and revenge. At
the same time he meditates on how such sensations make humanity into both 'the scion
of the evil principle' and 'noble and godlike'.
The fact that the novel has emerged in popular culture as a horror, or science-fiction
novel, demonstrates the feelings such work has inspired in its readers. We see it not as
reflecting the natural, but the supernatural. This is entirely in keeping with Romantic
philosophy. A preoccupation with things outside normal experience is a natural
development of privileging feeling over reason. Someone who is endowed with an acute
sensibility, who is prone to feeling everything rather intensely, would be much more
receptive to those experiences that are outside of the mundane. Hence, in Romantic
literature there are links with the Gothic. This was a genre that, along with the novel of
Sensibility, originated in the later eighteenth century, on the cusp of Romanticism, and
continued to grow in popularity. It was notorious for its angst-ridden, other-worldly
protagonists that terrified other characters - a notable example being Coleridge's
spectral Ancient Mariner transfixing the Wedding Guest. Or the enigmatic Lord Ruthven
in John William Polidori's The Vampyre: A Tale (1819). The feelings these kinds of
characters invoke in their audience can still be powerful - as any Twilight fan will tell you.

Romantics and the Quest for Political Freedom


This should not lead to the impression that Romantic art is based entirely on selfobsession. Or that it consisted mainly of the expression of feelings via such esoteric
subjects as Nature or the paranormal. The anger of the Romantics is equally important.
A significant constituent of the Romantic make-up was an interest in political reform, a
realistic view of contemporary political events. Political freedom was at the forefront of
Romantic ideology, the strength of this feeling encouraged by the works of Jean-Jacques
Rousseau who famously stated that:

Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.


Promise of political freedom was fuelled by the French Revolution in 1789, viewed by
many as the dawn of a political order where liberty and equality would be bywords of the
new era. Helen Maria Williams went to France in support of the Revolution, wanting to
absorb the sensations of participating in a defining moment in the history of humankind;

so too did Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother of Mary Shelley, a political activist and one of
the earliest champions of women's rights.

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive


But to be young was very heaven!
was the recall of Wordsworth. Often remembered as a man who turned to conservatism
in his later life, when young he had travelled to France, passionately joining in the postRevolution revels and democratically fathering a child in the spirit of free love!
Political freedom remained a Romantic concern long after the euphoria of the revolution
turned into bloody massacres and the rise and fall of Napoleon. This was the Regency
period, an era of war, of the Battles of Trafalgar (1805) and Waterloo (1815) and they did
not necessarily stir patriotic feelings in the Romantic authors. Anna Laetitia Barbauld
despaired at the effect that prolonged war had on both England and France:

Then empires fall to dust, the arts decay


And wasted realms enfeebled despots sway
Percy Bysshe Shelley's 'Feelings of a Republican on the Fall of Bonaparte' of 1816
opens with the savage 'I hated thee, fallen tyrant'. In his short lifetime there were many
political changes, such as the abolition of the Slave Trade (1807), and the Luddite
protests (1811-12). For him, poets were the 'unacknowledged legislators of the world',
and poetry could inspire such reforms. The polemic of 'The Masque of Anarchy', his
response to the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, for example, exhorted the protestors to

Rise like lions after slumber/In unvanquishable number.

Romantic Reputations Then and Now


But Regency politics could only tolerate so much passion. Some emotions were just too
dangerous, too provocative. Such was the strength of feeling in this poem that it
remained unpublished in Shelley's lifetime. This is a healthy reminder that, within their
own time, these authors were doing something very new. A little too new, for some. In his
lifetime, even Keats, now considered one of the greatest poets with a secure place in the
English Literary heritage, was deemed to be no good. In fact, for a long time there was a
myth, partly fuelled by Shelley, that Keats's premature death was the result of his
reaction to bad reviews of his poetry. He was popularly believed to have languished in
despair and died of a broken heart, at the lack of appreciation. He has sometimes been
seen as corresponding to the popular idea of artists as lone, tormented geniuses,
destined to suffer for their art, being uniquely gifted, above the common run of humanity,
and dying early.

But caution should be exercised in assuming that Keats was a kind of weepy Man of
Feeling. There is an anecdote of Keats's life that, even if untrue, provides a contrary
image. It is useful to recall if you ever find yourself visualising him, and other Romantics,
as drooping petals. His friend, Charles Cowden Clarke described an incident whereby
Keats, at that time ill with the tuberculosis that eventually killed him, came across a
butcher torturing a kitten. 'They fought for nearly an hour', noted Clarke, and in the end,
'the fellow was bled, or carried home.'
In other words, Keats did not collapse, weeping at the plight of the kitten. He did not
meditate upon the inherent cruelty of humanity. He beat the man almost senseless. He
must have been really angry.