Enlightenment And Romanticism
The Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is often vaunted as the age of reason. But it was also an age of passion, profound thinking, and revolutionary zeal, allied to a robust practicality, Aristotelian in outlook. John Locke (1632–1704) evolved a theory of the personality and a farsighted, liberal political philosophy. Less idealistic, Thomas Hobbes wrote Leviathan (1651), a masterly analysis of man's place with regard to nature and society. Religion remained institutionally entrenched (if a little shriveled by the skepticism of David Hume) and the dominant literary mode, classic in character and reformist in outlook, found its outlet in urbane, sometimes sardonic stylists like Voltaire (1694–1778) and Diderot (1713–1784) in France. Equally puncturing of pretensions were the heroic couplets of Alexander Pope and John Dryden in England and novelists like Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding, portraying social rather than God-seeking characters engaging in intrigues and amours.
The French Revolution brought republicanism, in which commoners replaced kings, and taxes were more evenly distributed. But military aspirations rampaged across Europe and Russia until the defeat of Napoléon Bonaparte. The Romantics of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were caught up in this spirit of rebellion. Liberty was the shibboleth of the poets William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, and Percy Bysshe Shelley—a word hoarding spiritual and political connotations. Language no longer favored the noble above the plain, for it was thought that the artist's intention elevated the subject matter. German Romanticism followed in the wake of the English initiative and, like its forerunner, throbbed with nature, passion, and intrigue but with an added spicing of wit and sexuality.
Where the Romantics had shown a preoccupation with themes like murder, intrigue, and incest, the nineteenth century developed the skills of everyday observation. Above all, it was the age of realism in the novel, embodied in the psychological narratives of Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Charles Dickens, and George Eliot: multilayered fictions set in worlds so convincingly realized that they seemed to reflect life as experienced rather than imagined. It was also a time of the professional man of letters who, at intervals, appraised the state of culture, typical English examples being Matthew Arnold and John Ruskin, the first a poet of distinction and the second a social critic and art historian. Victorian poetry was marked by a facile, routine romanticism that finally darkened and putrefied: hence the morbidity of content, the gothic shadow falling over some of the works of Robert Browning (1812–1889), Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892), and Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849).
The final decade of the nineteenth century was enlivened by the walk-on of the decadents, who started in France but quickly spread over the English Channel, espousing a doctrine similar to the symbolists: that art was free to treat whatever subject it saw fit, whether pernicious or virtuous. Art for art's sake (a slogan translated from the French of the philosopher Victor Cousin) was the byword, emancipating the creator—if he or she so wished—from conscience or morality. The decadents liked to celebrate small, exquisite instants in small, exquisite poems, sipping at life as if it were a rare wine.
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