Introduction A late 18th century reaction to rationalism, Romanticism opposes the idea of man as a thinking machine, deemphasizing reason and emphasizing self expression. The Romanticist is forever looking for John Keats "unheard melodies" of the imagination the evocative, the suggestive, the mysterious. Romanticisms focus turns away from God toward humanism, with the Poet, the artist, as the seer, the visionary, the spokesman for humanity.
Origins Romanticisms origins are a complex blend of several historical factors. The economic rise of the middle classwith the popularization of the self-made manand the individualism of the Renaissance, colluded with the Reformation's belief in the immediate relationship between God and man, and John Locke's philosophy that minds are formed by environmental conditions. Collectively, all four factors gave rise to the revolutionary (literally) notion that all men are created equal and they may be improved by environmental changes, i.e. improved institutions and better societies.
Idealism This idealism rules the Romanticists lives and dreams. Believing in the possibilities of mind over matter, the Romanticist yearns and strives for a utopian worldone that shall evolve from a lower order of reality into a high order. The Romanticist is on a ceaseless quest for Truth with a capital T. And Truth consists of finding the one in the manyseeing each individual, each experience as unique. To Walt Whitman, a single leaf of grass is no less a miracle than all the cosmos. Ultimately, Truth is reached through the Poet having experience with Nature by using his feelings and Imagination.
The Two Cultures This emphasis on Nature and the Imagination catalyzed a historically radical major paradigm shift. Romanticism is the scene of the split between high art and pop art. Romanticism marks the spot of the onset of C.P. Snow's two cultures: the humanities (irrational and ideal) and the sciences (rational and real).
Poetry and the Poet Being ideal in the Platonic sense, Romanticism is the belief that poetry is an imitation of life. Wordsworth called it the "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings." Yet, in the act of composing the poem, poets must rework, reshape, and temper their feelings. As Wordsworth puts it, the best poetry is created through "emotion recollected in tranquility."
Poetry and the Poet (continued) Coleridge taught that poetic composition is the resolution of the contraries "of passion and will." Ultimately, trusting your instinct is essential, for the feelings of the heart are more reliable than the thoughts of the head. Thus, Wordsworth and the Romantics relocated the source of poetry from the outer to the inner world, making the poets feelings, not men and their actions, the subject of poetry.
Organicism Coleridges organic theory of poetry emphasizes those feelings, positing that like a seed in the imagination, the idea grows out of itselfself originating and self organizingand all parts are related to the whole. The Poet as artist is merely the conduit of the imagination.
The Artist The 18th century concept of the artist is that he is one with the culture. The cultural spokesman, the artist gives expression to the central consciousness, the spirit of the counter culturemore rebellious and anti social, no longer fixed in his thinking. The Romanticists operated under Rousseaus philosophy that man is essentially good and is evil only when corrupted by society's institutions. In his seminal essay, In Defense of Poetry, Percy Bysshe Shelley said that poetry "creates anew the universe."
The Lyric Poem Celebrating this new individuality, the 1st person Lyric poem became a major form. The typical Lyric of the Romantic period explores a dichotomous set of oppositions, moving from the real world to the unreal/ideal world and back to the real world after learning something and/or having been changed. Some of these oppositions include: earth/heaven; mortality/immortality; time/eternity; materialism/spiritualism; finite/infinite; known/unknown; realism/romance.
Romance In a similar vein, the Romance novel is more faithful to the feelings of the heart than the cold facts of experience. Always striving for a deeper moral or spiritual truth, the Romantic novelist seeks to spiritualize the grossness of real life.
Romantic Love The subject of these Lyric poems and Romance novels is often, as you might imagine, Romantic Love, which is a reaction against the staid tradition of arranged marriages, of love as a contract. It is the belief that the world of the lovers is a world unto itself. Think of Rose and Jack in the movie Titanic. For all its perceived Hollywoodish blockbuster characteristics, Titanic is a supremely Romantic with a capital R movie.
The Nature of Nature Another primary subject of Romantic poetry and prose is Nature and its role in the lives of man. Making connections between Nature and man, Romantic poets strive to better understand and give free rein to their own natures, which are in opposition to society mans main adversary and enemy. "The world is too much with us," said Wordsworth. "Getting and spending we lay waste our powers. Little we see in nature that is ours." Thanks to the materialism and mechanism of society and its institutions, Man has become blind to the nature around and within him.
The Nature of Nature (continued) In nature, the Romanticists saw God, which is unlike previous ages that considered nature to be merely mechanical. The spiritual, not the material, is the true reality. Thus, you should ground your life in long solitary walks, communing with Nature, focusing on solitude and introspection
Glorification of the Commonplace Romanticism also elevates common people and common events, dethroning kings and queens. From the Preface to 1799s Lyrical Ballads, the landmark book of poetry he penned with Coleridge, Wordsworth said they intended to use "incidents and situations from common life...in language really spoken by men... humble and rustic life." Ws subjects included peasants, outcasts, delinquents, and idiots; thus, W democratized poetry, reinvigorating the readers wonder at the everyday, trivial, and familiar. Another Romanticist, Thomas Carlyle, has his protagonist in Sartor Resartus rescued from despair by his sense of the "Natural Supernaturalism" in ordinary experience.
The Supernatural and "Strangeness to Beauty" As Walter Pater noted, the Romantic sensibility adds strangeness to beauty" through writing about unusual types of experience. The occult, dreams and nightmares, and a fascination with the forbidden are commonplace in Romantic poetry. Coleridges Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan employ folklore and superstition to create an other-worldly atmosphere. In America, Edgar Allan Poes horror stories resonate with dark and supernatural events and characters.
The Imagination Thus, to the Romanticists, the Imagination makes the world new again. The act of imagination, as Coleridge argued, requires a leap from merely putting together images to crafting a unified metaphoric design. Imaginative figurative language forms a complete "vision," as William Butler Yeats would later assemble with his highly developed symbolism.
The Individual Mind All of the preceding elements are part of the Romanticists search for self. Celebrating process and growth, movement and energy, Wordsworth believed that the mind is "an agent of the one great Mind": that the mind has access beyond sense to the infinite through the Imagination. This post-Kantian philosophythat the mind of man (as "subject" and "ego") is the creator of the universe it perceivesposits that words precede ideas.
Bakhtins Dialogic This provocative notion set the stage for the great Russian philosopher of the early 20th century, Mikhail Bakhtin. His theory of dialogic argues that in dialogue, in speaking, we create the self in myself, both for others and for ourselves. In other words, we as individuals do not exist prior to our own spoken words about ourselves.
Romance in America Interestingly enough, in a very profound sense, America did not exist prior to the thinkers and writers first willing her into being with their words, which then inspired the action of revolution. Romanticism became the first " ism" America adopted. Being a rugged, vastly rural and frontier country, the U.S. was tailor-made for Romance.
Romance Fading However, after the Civil War, the optimism and romantic individualism of Emerson faded into a Darwinian biological and economic determinism. As the esteemed critic Richard Chase contends, the American creative imagination "has been shaped by the contradictions and not by the unities or harmonies of our culture" (Chase, Richard. The American Novel and its Tradition. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co, Inc., 1957. p.1) Chase further posits this thesis: American literature is best described as a "profound poetry of disorder" (2).
American vs. British Romanticism American Romanticism differs from British Romanticism in several key aspects. Being a predominantly agrarian society, America had a frontier optimism and sense of unlimited potential for development and even a utopian possibility. The heroism of early Americans in confronting the wilderness head-on permeated the sensibilities of poets, philosophers and the public alike. As Chase notes, "although most of the great American novels are romances, most of the great English novels are not" (xii).
Romanticism in American Lit Heres just a handful of concrete examples of Romanticism evident in some of the greatest works of American literature. The Historical Romances of James Fenimore Cooper, in which he idealizes the primitive, uncorrupted common man. This noble savage appears also in the works of Herman Melville and Mark Twain, who direct their heroes on mythic quests through remote places of the globe and the human mind. Such introspection and interest in the individual fighting a corrupt society is everywhere in 19th century Am Lit: in Cooper and Emerson and Thoreau, in Hawthorne and Poe and Irving and Twain. Everywhere also is the celebration of nature, natural beauty and the simple life. American literature at its origins and core is intensely, personally Romantic.
Romanticisms Excesses This radically higher estimation of man's potential, aims and worth is not without its serious downside. Such hyper individualism treads dangerously close to the Faustian sin of pride, self-love, megalomania, and narcissism. The darkest characters in Hawthorne (Chillingworth), Poe (you pick em), Melville (Captain Ahab), and Twain (the Sheperdsons and Grangerfords) want to be God and dont know their own human limitations.
Romanticisms Excesses (continued) Disturbingly, many artists even boasted of this propensity. The British poet William Blake argued that the mind must reject the material world to create its own world, stating that "Less than everything cannot satisfy man." Coleridge and Wordsworth believed passionately that the poet collaborates with nature in becoming a creator unto himself. This refusal to submit to Gods will and accept your mortal limitations had been considered man's original sin by previous generations. Yet, the Romantics considered this egotism their triumph and glory.
Romanticism vs. Realism Of course, there existed then and still exists today a tension between the isms of Romanticism and Realism, which is always right there, in the logical mind, attempting to make perfect, objective sense of ones stubbornly imperfect and subjective perspective on life. Thus, it should be helpful and fruitful to close this Lecture with a succinct comparison of R & R.
Romanticism vs. Realism Artistic and poetic outlook on life Subjective: warm, personal, confessional Intuition and insight Visions, dreams, questions Spiritual Scientific, sociological outlook on life Objective: cool, impersonal, detached Laboratory observation Facts, documentation Material
Romanticism vs. Realism Indefinite, suggestive Rich tradition, legend, past, myth Definite, tangible Now and everyday