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Romanticism in Literature and Politics - The First Generation In Britain And Germany, The Second Generation In Britain And Germany, French Romanticism

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Romanticism is perhaps the richest and certainly the most vexed of the "isms." At the most general level, the term denotes a set of common tendencies in European art and thought from about 1797 to 1848. Ultimately those tendencies influenced the arts, especially literature, in virtually every country from Spain to Russia, but their acknowledged origins and centers were Britain, France, and Germany. Until the late twentieth century, there was even wide critical and historical agreement on the canonical names and the succession of Romantic generations in these countries. In literature, criticism, and philosophy, it was standard to regard William Blake (1757–1827), William Wordsworth (1770–1850), and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834) in England as constituting the first generation of major Romantic poets and Lord Byron (1788–1824), Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822), and John Keats (1795–1821) the second, with Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) the lone novelist; Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881) often figured as a later Romantic sui generis. In Germany, "early Romanticism" (Frühromanti) meant the Jena Circle of Friedrich Schlegel (1772–1829) and August Wilhelm Schlegel (1767–1845), Novalis (pseudonym for Georg Friedrich Philipp von Hardenburg [1772–1801]), and Ludwig Tieck (1773–1853)—the first self-conscious Romantic "movement," though without the name—along with Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder (1773–1798), Friedrich Hölderlin (1770–1843), the philosopher Friedrich Schelling (1775–1854), and the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834). The younger writers of the second "War of Liberation" generation included the folklorists and writers Achim von Arnim (1781–1831), Clemens Brentano (1778–1842), the brothers Grimm (Jakob [1785–1863] and Wilhelm [1786–1859]), Jean Paul (1763–1825), and the more problematic Heinrich von Kleist (1777–1811). Romanticism in France arguably lasted longer, though it started a little later, and could be divided into four generations, both chronological and ideological—François René de Chateaubriand (1768–1848), Benjamin Constant (1767–1830), and Germaine de Staël (1766–1817) (the lone woman considered in her own right) in the revolutionary and Napoleonic periods; the cénacles around Victor Hugo (1802–1885) and Stendhal (pseudonym of Marie-Henri Beyle [1783–1842]) in the 1820s; the Jeune France (Young France) Romantics of the Revolution of 1830 and the following decade, including Théophile Gautier (1811-1872), Alfred Vigny (1811–1872), Alfred de Musset (1810–1857), and Gérard de Nerval (1808–1855); and finally the so-called Social Romantics led by the poet-politician Alphonse de Lamartine (1790–1869), whose ideas triumphed, then foundered in the failed Revolution of 1848, finally taking Romanticism with them.

The sheer number, diversity and chronological spread of these writers suggest the difficulty of generalization, and the list does not include all the putative Romantic writers and critics, let alone painters and composers. Nonetheless literary critics and historians through the 1960s did identify a number of characteristics that, even if not all shared by every Romantic, seemed to capture a distinctive Romantic style, indeed a whole ethos. Central to it was a validation of both unique human particularity or individuality and the human sense for the infinite, as well as the effort to reconcile the two. The Romantic idea of individuality involved a heightened awareness and legitimization of the emotions and the irrational, against what it took to be the arid rationalism and the narrow, destructive analytic spirit of the eighteenth century. The crucial faculty of the expanded Romantic self was the imagination, which through the emotions and the unconscious could grasp and unite with the infinite in its various characterizations, whether a virtually deified Nature, a more abstract Absolute, or a more traditionally theistic divinity. As to the origins of these new concerns, as early as the 1820s contemporaries had identified a number of instigating factors: the revival of ballads and of medieval and Elizabethan "romance," the rise of German Idealist philosophy, and the French Revolution.

M. H. Abram's Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (1971) offered an elegant, powerful synthesis of British and German Romanticism whose range went beyond the narrowly literary implications of its title to include Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Georg Wilhelm Freidrich Hegel as well as such later figures as Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche and D. H. Lawrence, whom Abrams also claimed for Romanticism. Abrams saw Romanticism as profoundly philosophical, a "metaphysics of integration" whose The Death of Sardanapalus (1844) by Eugène Delacroix. Oil on canvas. As with Romanticism in the visual arts, written works in the Romantic style stressed emotions and intuition over rationalism and scientific analysis, and the imagination above all. © PHILADELPHIA MUSEUM OF ART /CORBIS key was "the 'reconciliation,' or synthesis, of whatever is divided, opposed and conflicting." Its central literary trope was the circuitous journey, in which the visionary writer, as prophetic representative of all humanity, falls from primal unity into individuated and conflicted existence but ultimately returns to a higher unity that restores the original harmony while preserving his fully separate identity. This trope was the secularized and naturalized transformation of Christian Neo-platonism, which posited a three-stage developmental history of Being as paradigmatic also for human development: primal cosmic unity and goodness, subsequent differentiation into multiplicity and particularity, equivalent to a fall into evil and suffering, and then a return to unity and goodness that yet retains individuation and differentiation.

Abrams explained the Romantic secularization of an originally religious metaphysics as the direct result of the French Revolution. The Revolution seemed to bring the prospect of heaven down to earth, holding out a this-worldly hope for radical individual freedom and complete social harmony, only to betray that hope by its murderous course and ultimate failure. The Romantics, initially caught up in revolutionary fervor, transferred their quest for liberation and reconciliation from political actions and forms to the spheres of aesthetics and philosophy. As Abrams put it, external means for transforming the world were replaced by internal means; the millennial faith in an apocalypse by revolution gave way to faith in an apocalypse by imagination or cognition.

The depth, coherence, and comprehensiveness of Abram's synthesis meant that any new approach would inevitably, directly or implicitly, be directed against it. In the ensuing decades the "visionary" interpretation of Romanticism was subjected to three main sorts of criticism.

Even before Natural Supernaturalism was published, Geoffrey Hartmann's groundbreaking work on William Wordsworth had undermined one of Romanticism's fundamental premises: the idea of a Romantic reconciliation of individuality and infinity. The attack on reconciliation became the main thrust of deconstructionist criticism, drawing on the French philosopher Jacques Derrida and led by the critic Paul de Man, whose first essays also predated Abrams. As he and others argued, Romantic writing consistently "deconstructed" the hoped-for unity of the mind with the objective Absolute through literary tropes and rhetorical disclaimers that unintentionally revealed the supposedly objective Romantic absolute as a wishful linguistic artifact of mind itself. Ultimately there was nothing but the human imagination, looking for, but in the nature of things unable to find, an external cocreator of the human experience of infinite wholeness. Romantic literature, as one critic put it, was a constant "dialogue between illusion and its deconstruction."

A very different kind of criticism of the visionary approach implicated deconstruction as well: Both were radically unhistorical. Abrams's interpretation was ostensibly historically-minded in its claim that Romanticism was a continuation of the project of the French Revolution by other means. In the following decades, however, historicist criticism, partly building on an earlier Marxism but using new techniques of reading derived from the critic Stephen Greenblatt's application of Clifford Geertz's anthropology, the work of Michel Foucault, and deconstruction itself, insisted that this claim obscured the true relationship between politics and Romanticism. By shifting the arena of freedom and reconciliation to the imaginative and aesthetic, the Romantics were in fact either occluding politics or retreating from it altogether. Jerome McGann (1983), for example, asserted that the poetry of Romanticism was everywhere marked by an extreme form of displacement, through which the actual human issues of liberation from hierarchy, oppression, and poverty and the political struggle to achieve a just and egalitarian society were resituated in a variety of idealized locales such as nature, agrarian utopias, or the visionary imagination of art. Only a sociohistorical method of reading even such ostensibly unhistorical poems as Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" (1798) could demystify them by revealing the hidden conservative or outright antipolitics of a Romanticism that tried to transform concrete sociopolitical agenda into timeless ontological visions.

German historical criticism took a similar political tack, though it was less debunking in tone because there was never any doubt in the minds of critics that the original German Romantic impulse was inspired by the liberationist goals of the French Revolution or that the early Romantics themselves openly acknowledged this. As Frederick Beiser (1992) pointed out, what separated early from later German Romanticism was the distinction between the former's relatively egalitarian ideal of community and the latter's more authoritarian and paternalistic ideal of the state. The question for critics like him, therefore, was why the original radical thrust of German Romanticism, in which Friedrich Schlegel's demand for a "universal poetry" shaped only by the poet's sovereign will was initially linked with republican politics, not only dissipated but turned into its opposite.

The third line of dissent from the visionary hypothesis argued the limitations of an inherently masculine Romantic vision and its contemporary masculinist interpretation. Both, feminist critics claimed, entailed the ideological subordination of the feminine along with the simultaneous exclusion of real women from their purview. Feminist Romantic criticism undertook three distinct though connected initiatives. One worked at exposing the gendered character of the visionary synthesis. Ann Mellor (1988, 1993), for example, claimed that the Romantic poets endorsed a concept of the self as a power that gains control over and gives significance to nature, represented in their writings as female, thus legitimizing the continued repression of women. A second initiative focused on the women writers of the Romantic movement, both previously acknowledged if underestimated authors like de Staël and Mary Shelley, and those hitherto treated as little more than supernumeraries and handmaidens of the canonical Romantic writers, such as Dorothy Wordsworth, Dorothea Schlegel, and Caroline Schelling. A third approach, the one potentially most disruptive of the previous synthesis, tested the Romantic canon by resurrecting the work of a number of late-eighteenth-and early-nineteenth-century women writers such as Helen Maria Williams, Charlotte Smith, Mary Robinson, Felicia Hemans, and Maria Edgeworth, all well-known and well regarded in their own time but consigned by later critics to oblivion. Many of them could not be easily assimilated into the interpretive categories of visionary Romanticism.

In the face of the new diversity, there might be a temptation to return to Lovejoy's radical nominalism. But a more helpful approach, one faithful to the spirit of the times, revises the earlier synthesis in the light of its challengers, maintaining the meaningfulness of the term Romanticism, while acknowledging that not everything written during the "age of Romanticism"—for example, the novels of Jane Austen—was Romantic. Such revision, furthermore, is able to include more of the conclusions of the new methodologies, and more of the new work they examine, than might initially be expected. The indispensability of the historical context for understanding the emergence and development of Romanticism strongly suggests that synthesis must take the form of a narrative, however necessarily simplified in a short article.

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over 1 year ago

Thank you for this admirable article. I was asked to produce a semi-scholarly piece for the Literary Review of Canada about the underpinnings of the Quebec student uprisings and marches in the spring of 2012. This article is invaluable for setting the historical stage, particularly in speaking of influences on francophone students.

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over 5 years ago

This was a really great article. I've been looking for something that could give a succinct overview of early romanticism and some of the later postmodernist criticism that has addressed the topic. I don't know who wrote this, but it was extremely useful.