Romantic Era

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Ask anyone on the street: "what is Romanticism?" and you will certainly receive some kind of reply. Everyone claims to know the meaning of the word romantic. The word conveys notions of sentiment and sentimentality, a visionary or idealistic lack of reality. It connotes fantasy and fiction. It has been associated with different times and with distant places: the island of Bali, the world of the Arabian Nights, the age of the troubadours and even Manhattan. Advertising links it with the effects of lipstick, perfume and soap. If we could ask the advertising genius who, fifty years ago, came up with the brilliant cigarette campaign, "blow some my way," he may have responded with "it's romantic."

These meanings cause few problems in every day life -- indeed, few of us wonder about the meaning of Romanticism at all. Yet we use the expression freely and casually ("a romantic, candle-lit dinner"). But literary historians and critics as well as European historians have been quarreling over the meaning of the word Romanticism for decades, as Lovejoy's comment above makes abundantly clear. One of the problems is that the Romantics were liberals and conservatives, revolutionaries and reactionaries. Some were preoccupied with God, others were atheistic to the core. Some began their lives as devout Catholics, lived as ardent revolutionaries and died as staunch conservatives.

The expression Romantic gained currency during its own time, roughly 1780-1850. However, even within its own period of existence, few Romantics would have agreed on a general meaning. Perhaps this tells us something. To speak of a Romantic era is to identify a period in which certain ideas and attitudes arose, gained currency and in most areas of intellectual endeavor, became dominant. That is, they became the dominant mode of expression. Which tells us something else about the Romantics: expression was perhaps everything to them -- expression in art, music, poetry, drama, literature and philosophy. Just the same, older ideas did not simply wither away. Romantic ideas arose both as implicit and explicit criticisms of 18th century Enlightenment thought (see Lecture 9). For the most part, these ideas were generated by a sense of inadequacy with the dominant ideals of the Enlightenment and of the society that produced them.

ROMANTICISM appeared in conflict with the Enlightenment. You could go as far as to say that Romanticism reflected a crisis in Enlightenment thought itself, a crisis which shook the comfortable 18th century philosophe out of his intellectual single-mindedness. The Romantics were conscious of their unique destiny. In fact, it was self-consciousness which appears as one of the keys elements of Romanticism itself.

The philosophes were too objective -- they chose to see human nature as something uniform. The philosophes had also attacked the Church because it blocked human reason. The Romantics attacked the Enlightenment because it blocked the free play of the emotions and creativity. The philosophe had turned man into a soulless, thinking machine -- a robot. In a comment typical of the Romantic thrust, William Hazlitt (1778-1830) asked, "For the better part of my life all I did was think." And William Godwin (1756-1836), a contemporary of Hazlitt's asked, "what shall I do when I have read all the books?" Christianity had formed a matrix into which medieval man situated himself. The Enlightenment replaced the Christian matrix with the mechanical matrix of Newtonian natural philosophy. For the Romantic, the result was nothing less than the demotion of the individual. Imagination, sensitivity, feelings, spontaneity and freedom were stifled -- choked to death. Man must liberate himself from these intellectual chains.

Like one of their intellectual fathers, Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), the Romantics yearned to reclaim human freedom. Habits, values, rules and standards imposed by a civilization grounded in reason and reason only had...
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