Self and Imagination in Romanticism

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The Romantic era is denoted by an extensive questioning and expression of challenging notions building on the convictions of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment challenged the Christian Orthodoxy which had dominated Europe for 1,000 years. Romanticism proposed an exploration of self, emphasising the primacy of the individual and a vision of humankind animated by the imagination, endorsing a reverence and personal connection to nature. The set texts Fancy and Ode to a Nightingale explore a world created by imagination, emphasising the importance of reflection and sustaining a relationship with nature. Northanger Abbey however, examines the interplay between reason and imagination. The related text Thanatopsis possesses tropes of Dark Romanticism, depicting humanity’s curiosity of the supernatural whilst Beethoven’s works analyse the expression of intense emotion and nature as a moral force.

A propensity for self analysis and introspection is a feature of Romanticism. This notion gained impetus as a response to the Neo-Classicist belief that humans were created as social beings, designed to conform to the status quo and abide by tradition. As well as a defiance against social duty and personal discipline, an emphasis on the individual came about as a result of anti-establishmentism. Closely connected to the Romantics’ rejection of the artificial was a growing opposition to established institutions such as the monarchy and the Church. Paul Brians, an American Scholar stated “The idea that the best path to faith is through individual choice, the idea that the government exists to serve individuals who have created it... are products of the Romantic celebration of the individual at the expense of society and tradition.”

Social conventions and acceptable barometers of behaviour are questioned through the responders’ identification with protagonists who are marginalised or ‘different’. This is seen through the characterisation of Emily Bronte’s, Heathcliff and Mary Shelley’s, Monster. Romantic ideologues, in contrast to Neo-Classicists, valued the solitary state and the unique qualities of an individual’s mind rather than the outer social world. Romanticism encouraged the creative exploration of the inner self and praised unconventionality. Such focus is shown through the continual use of first-person lyrical poems. This technique is prevalent in Keats’ works, particularly in his poem Ode to a Nightingale. Keats questions “Do I wake or sleep?” - his proclivity toward direct voice accentuates the importance of self reflection and moulds reader response. Keats describes the archetypal outsider - an obsessive, egocentric man of extremes who is disenchanted with life. These periods of deep introspection highlight the importance placed on feelings and creative contemplation. For the Romantics, objective outlook is inundated by a new focus on the individual and the subconscious.

The Romantic emphasis on introspection and imaginative reflection is critiqued in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey through the characterisation of the protagonist, Catherine Morland. Catherine is described as an atypical Gothic heroine -“No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her to be born an heroine” - and through her reflections and fanciful Gothic delusions, the composer highlights how imaginings hinder personal growth and objective outlook. Through dramatic irony, Austen derides these fantasies and demonstrates how they conflict with everyday realities. The composer suggests that a love for Gothic literature, or the supernatural - found in the contemporary texts of her time as a Romantic concept - contributes to impaired judgment and unworldliness. Through the growth of the antagonists in her story, Austen describes social pretension and unlike the concerns of Gothic literature, tells of a natural evil rather than the bizarre, macabre story lines of Gothic texts. Austen criticises the notion of the supernatural,...
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