INTRODUCTION TO ROMANTICISM
Romanticism applies to a fervent period in literature in England and American that ran between 1790 and the mid 1800s–although, as we will see, romanticism continues in many various guises all the way up until today. In fact, romantic philosophy informs who we are as modern Americans in ways you may not even be conscious of.
The term romanticism has been defined by so many scholars and poets in so many different ways that the word often loses meaning. For our purposes, however, we can define it as a particularly new, somewhat experimental and more modern approach toward poetry and prose that evolved like a storm in England in the late 1700s and then influenced the great Transcendentalist authors in America in the early to mid 1800s.
Romanticism was a literary movement that rebelled against the ideologies of classicism, order, reason and coherence that dominated literature from the mid-1600s and throughout the Enlightenment in the 1700s. The Enlightenment (of the Age of Reason) valued Reason over Passion. This meant that clear-thinking, logic, empiricism, moderation in thought and a focus on human centered activities and their bearing upon society was made to take center stage (and to suppress) the imaginative, dreams, desires, individual hopes and problems, the exploration of the self and mysteries.
By the 1790s, English and French writers and philosophers began to rebel against Age of Reason precepts, arguing that it denied the more self-oriented, irrational, mysterious and emotional aspects of existence. Poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge, began to subvert the dichotomy between Reason / Passion, and (for the first time in literary history), writers places Passion above Reason. By making Passion paramount, poets and authors explored the human self as an individual, emotions, dreams, the irrational and the sublime. Many of them, like Coleridge, believed whole-heartedly that the route to Reason and Intellect went through the Passions. One reaches knowledge by experiencing emotions, intuition and sensory experience, not the other way around.
The result of Romanticism is the birth, in a sense, of modern literature as we know it: a literature of the self, the individual, emotions, of mysteries, and dreams. Consequently, romanticism accounts for our modern American emphasis upon the individual, upon the rights of privacy, the valor of making one’s dreams come true, etc.
To try to simply spell out the difference between Romanticism, and the philosophy toward poetry and prose that prevailed before 1790, I will give an example of how a typical person from each period would define a poem. Asked to define a poem today, and most of us would immediately associate poetry with the poet’s feelings. Before 1790, the same question would have elicited a very different response: poetry is a form of art that represents general truths concerning the human being in a social or political world, and the function of civilization.
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